The Hopes and Fears of All the Years

This is an excerpt from “12 Days of Christmas Carols,” a devotional which unpacks lines of familiar Christmas carols you’ve sung for years but perhaps have never really thought about.

“The hopes of fears of all the years;” has a more poetic description of Christmas ever been crafted? The holy infant in the manger, in these words from “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” is the intersection of hope and fear.

What do these words mean? While initially beautiful, the more you think about this line, the stranger it gets. Because hope and fear are opposites, right? “Hope” is the emotional anticipation of something good, while fear is the emotional anticipation of something bad. They don’t go together. In fact, one casts out the other. So how could hope and fear meet in him?

But stop and consider the compelling character of Christ, and you’ll realize that he carries more contradictions than hope and fear. He is the intersection of every opposite. He is the Lion and the Lamb– the ferocious conquering King and the silent, slaughtered sacrifice. In his dazzling personality meet infinite justice and infinite mercy, an unswerving commitment to the righteousness of God and and undaunted love for the unrighteous. He is worthy of the greatest possible honor, and yet he suffered the greatest possible humiliation. No one in the universe is greater than him, and yet no one stooped lower than he. Greatest glory and lowest humility link arms in the heart of Jesus. He is infinitely majestic– the King of kings and Lord of lords– and yet is indescribably meek and gentle. He is, as Philippians 2 claims, “equal with God,” and yet in every moment of his earthly ministry displayed a profound reverence for his Father. He has all authority in heaven and earth, and yet submitted his will to his Father’s. He is the Sovereign One who commands the winds and waves, and yet he resigned himself to utter victimhood. He spoke and demons trembled, and yet he welcomed children on his knee.

In any other person, these character traits would be incompatible, and yet in Jesus they come together in a strange and utterly compelling dance. No one else is like him; indeed, no one even comes close. No wonder the temple guards, sent to arrest him, came back empty handed and marveling: “No one ever spoke like this man!” (John 7:46) This is what Jonathan Edwards called, “the admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies”– a kaleidoscope of perfections that leaves us dazzled and amazed.

Truly, he is the culmination of every hope and every fear. He is, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “the highest possible good and the supreme terror,” the Holy One himself wrapped in human flesh. Meeting Jesus means coming face to face with our ache for mercy and our anxiety of shame, our hopeful desire for restoration and the fearful expectation of judgment. What else can you feel but joy and terror, faith and fear, when you consider the greatness of this manger-bound God, who came first as Savior and is coming again as King and Judge? Fall on your knees, cast out your sin, and receive him today, still a Savior.

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