O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
This classic Christmas carol, written 140 years ago by one of America’s greatest preachers, Phillips Brooks, captures so much thought in such few words.
When Brook visited there, Bethlehem nights did quiet as its agrarian residents slept off the day’s hard work.
But the quiet nights that hugged Mary and Joseph shrouded the intense anger felt by a conquered people. Any given citizen’s land was theirs only as long as the Romans didn’t want it. Their employment hinged on the goodwill and bribes given to the occupying soldiers. Justice was meted out with the arbitrariness that results when only a select few qualify as “citizens,” and the rest treated as “illegals.”
The quiet nights of today’s Bethlehem resonate with the hushed intensity into which Jesus immigrated. The stillness shrouds a tension driven by specific fears of recent years. Outbreaks of violence. Racial tensions. Religious fanaticism. Empty shelves in stores. Empty wallets. Empty stomachs.
What’s more, Jesus was the ultimate illegal. The region’s ruler undertook a purge of all young firstborns in order to destroy him. He survived. And for the next 33 years, indeed through the millennia since, the fears of all the years have been met.
Not just fears, but hopes, too.
Consider the recent Annapolis peace conference, convened by President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Together with leaders from more than 40 countries, these two American leaders set a clear goal for a two-state peace agreement for Israel-Palestine, to be finalized by the end of 2008.
Then again, hopes unrealized generate even deeper fears. Such fears, tinged with cynicism, swell among the citizenry of the city of David, as illustrated by the outbreak of Palestinian demonstrations opposing the effort. In fact, polls suggest that two-thirds of all Palestinians expect the talks to fail. Fully three-fourths of Israelis expect them to come to naught.
Who can fault their cynicism?
Hopes soared as Ronald Reagan, nearing the end of his term in office, redoubled his efforts to effect peace in Israel-Palestine. But to no avail.
Hopes arose as George H. W. Bush, a leader in world diplomacy, exerted his best efforts to bring peace. Yet during his tenure, the first Palestinian Intifada (1987-1993) continued.
Hopes were renewed in July 2000, when Bill Clinton — his term in office nearing its end — welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to Camp David, in the hope for forging a lasting peace. Those talks led to a second Intifada in September 2000.
Now, after six years of focusing on the War on Terrorism, Mr. Bush’s launch of talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has generated broad skepticism.
Nevertheless, hope — a tentative, cautious hope — is renewed yet again. This hope may be spurred simply by this sitting president’s search for a lasting legacy, akin to the thwarted hope pursued by his predecessors. Nevertheless, it beats the alternative.
In spite of the unsuccessful efforts of his predecessors, this new initiative deserves our prayers. The three heads of state, all lagging in popularity polls, could help write a new story for the land of Jesus’ birth. Who knows? Maybe next Christmas we can sing Phillips Brooks’ song with a new gusto. Maybe next Christmas the little town of Bethlehem will behold the everlasting light, and in the process, experience a truly peace-filled night.
And the fears of all the years will have been met by the hope that is Bethlehem’s child.