A Christmas Hymn
Each night as my son roots around seeking the perfect space between his sheets to sleep, I sing.
The criteria for my song choices? Something I remember all the words to. Awkward pauses spent searching for a lyric break the spell and grant second chances at waking.
This means my lullabies often assume unorthodox forms: psalms, hymns, and the hits of the ‘90s. My son might be the only five-year-old in America to absorb—and remember—all the words to Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” through sleepy-eyed osmosis.
Just like the adult-contemporary radio station in your town, my format switches in December. All Christmas, all the time. Recently, in the waning moments of my nightly performance, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” caught in my throat. Beyond the slippery surface of a melody which challenges the tuning of many singers, one line introduced the sort of pause I work to avoid:
The hopes and fears of all the years
are met in Thee tonight.
The hopes and fears of all the years? Are you sure? I asked within the small, silent space of my own spirit.
Tiptoeing out of my son’s room, I reviewed the year. I thought of children ripped from their parents’ arms at the American border, of mothers singing whatever the opposite of the Magnificat is. Ringing in my ears, the cries of caged innocents caught on tape, caught up in a political sport whose rules they can’t possibly know or understand.
I refreshed my mental browser and sifted through the tweets of Sister Helen Prejean, whose supernatural advocacy on behalf of death-row inmates is case enough for sainthood. I retold myself her stories of condemned men and women, stories reaching back into childhoods filled with the sort of harrowing neglect and abuse which would break the best of us.
In the face of all the sins we commit, and all the sins committed against us, it seems impossible that the hopes and fears of this year—let alone all the years—could meet in Bethlehem. Even on the holiest of nights.
I make a mental list of fears known only to me. The fear I might never shake free of anxiety’s strong hands. The fear I will never write a truly memorable sentence. Fears on behalf of my son who, because of me, grows up in a country with little use for black boys’ bodies.
My hopes sit on the other side of my fears. Hope to find my creative voice. Hope to breathe a little easier day by day. Hope for another thirty or forty years of days with my wife. Hope to relieve and refresh my son’s spirit. Hope I’ll never break him. Hope in the better angels of our nature appearing above our country and singing out like the Christmas angels did that night, lighting up the firmament above bewildered shepherds.
How can it be? All these hopes, all these fears met in Thee.
The past few weeks I prefer to run at night. My wife sends me out the door with a loving warning, her eyes enough to express the danger of running past December’s dark. I fear the danger of staying inside more.
Running through my center-city neighborhood, I memorize the location of every house with glorious holiday lights. Ask and I’ll recount the best lights on Broadway, the hidden gems along Garth and Rollins, the strongest showings on Ash Street, where I live.
Those displays, elegant yet modest, warm me. They pierce a darkness which threatens to envelop me from inside out. Each strand of white like a tiny star, calling me back to Bethlehem.
People tend to overuse the language of journeys, Christians especially. But at Christmas, the words feel right. We describe our spiritual lives as a daily lifting of the cross, a dying to the self, and so they are.
We might also talk of faith as a retracing of our steps, a daily return to Bethlehem. With us we carry hopes and fears, dreams and doubts, poor substitutes for gold, frankincense and myrrh, yet gifts we come by honestly.
I fumble with the meaning of that line, the one about the hopes and fears. There’s something in it about knowing the deliverer, but waiting for deliverance. Something about feeling the weight of fear, but watching perfect love peek around the corner of history.
So I sing it all the same. And it sends me and my beloved off to sleep.