Praying History's Prayer
"The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." So sings one of our favorite Christmas carols, "O Little Town of Bethlehem." "The hopes and fears of all the years."
As the story goes, the great American preacher of the nineteenth century Phillips Brooks was taking a year's sabbatical from his parish of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. He traveled in Europe and Palestine, and on Christmas Eve of 1865 found himself in the hills overlooking Bethlehem. As he stood there on Christmas Eve he found himself deeply moved. Bethlehem was only a simple little Arab village, indistinguishable from dozens of other small Arab villages he had seen on his journey, but it was also so much more.
The familiar Christmas hymns and carols began to play through Phillips Brooks' memory. Caught up into the soaring music of advent faith, and because he was a musician of some ability, he began to think of writing a new hymn. He wanted to sing of whatever had touched him so powerfully looking down on this ordinary Arab village of Bethlehem.
Brooks had been back in his Philadelphia pulpit for two years before he finally found the words, but finally he was able to sing what it was that had so haunted him: "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."
In these Sundays of Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas, we also look toward Bethlehem, and with the same mixture of hope and longing. Bethlehem remains a plain-looking little Arab town. For years it had a flourishing tourist industry in December, but these past few years Christmas and Advent have not been celebrated in Bethlehem. There is simply too much tension between Muslims and Christians and Orthodox Jews. Crowds in Bethlehem would provide an audience for one cause or another. A troop of pilgrims could invite violence from zealots of one religion or another.
Ironic to think that Christmas will not come this year to Bethlehem of all places, but again: Bethlehem is as ordinary as can be. Bethlehem is pretty much like everywhere else, only a littlemore so: divided into bitter factions, poised on the brink of violence, desperate for peace.
"The hopes and fears of all the years" meet in Bethlehem.
Yet Bethlehem is not at all ordinary. The very mention of the place is enough to start us dreaming and hoping. Some of our dreaming, to be sure, is that old Christmas enchantment that falls upon us each year, but there is something else too. Bethlehem is the place and the name in which "the hopes and fears of all the years are met." On these Sundays in Advent we look toward Bethlehem and hope for something larger than this troubled little Arab village can hold.
What is it that we hope for? We hope for lots of things at Christmas. That we can all be together. That we can be healthy. That our family might be happy together at a time which so often only invites more stress on already strained relationships. If we are very young we hope for exciting things from Santa's well-equipped warehouses. In addition to all our conventional hopes, however, I think we hope for something grander. We hope for something of which we can barely speak, so extravagant is our hoping.
We hope for the same things that people have always hoped for, "the hopes and fears of all the years" and of every people in every generation.
We hope for peace. We hope for peace, though we scarcely know how to conceive of peace. The peace we have known is momentary interval between conflicts. The peace we have known is a private peace at a distance from places where, others die and are maimed, the peace of someone else's son or daughter shipping away to fight in a faraway land. The peace we know is the peace of armed camps and poised weapons, a precarious standoff imposed by sheer terror of war. That is not the peace we hope for. We hope for something more even though we do not know how to hope for it or even pray for it. We hope for peace.
We hope for food and enough to eat. We have enough, to be sure; and to be sure, we have too much, as our scales likely tell us these days after Thanksgiving. We have more than enough and our enough shames us because we know how truly unusual our "enough" is. We see the faces on television, but we know that we do not have to go to the Congo or Bangladesh to see hungry people. A drive across town will do. As people of faith, we try to do something about this, especially these days around Thanksgiving and before Christmas, but we hope for something more potent and more permanent than our own good will provides. We hope for enough for everyone.
We hope for an end to sickness, to cancer, to AIDS. We hope for an end to racism and prejudice and everything that divides the human community into angry camps. We hope for an end to our homesickness for God. We hope for the healing of the creation. That is what we hope for, "the hopes and fears of all the years" we wrap in the prayer we pray, "hallowed be thy name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." That is what we hope and that is what we pray. We call it "the Lord's Prayer." That's what we call it. The gospels don't call it anything, they just say, "pray then in this way" (Mt 6:9) or "when you pray, say" (Lk 11:2). The Church has called it "the Lord's Prayer." We might have accurately called it "history's prayer," this utterance of "the hopes and fears of all the years" in address to God. "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." That is history's prayer. That is our prayer, "the hopes and fears of all the years."
It is most disturbing, then, to read Jesus' words from the Gospel according to St. Luke which picture the coming of the kingdom of God and to hear things like:
And there will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint with fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
That is precisely what we do not pray for! That is what we pray God's protection against. Our hopes are for a world unmarred by distress and trouble. Our fear is exactly that kind of upheaval that Jesus speaks of in these shattering words. We want peace, not turmoil. We want calm waters and smooth sailing, not "the roaring of the sea and the waves." We pray, "thy Kingdom come."
Can we really believe, however, that the kingdom of God will come without disturbance? Can we hope that history will finally come to its fulfillment and be transformed into something new without changing anything at all?
Before there is the "little town of Bethlehem" lying in its dreamless sleep there is an angel disturbing the peace of a young woman. "You will conceive in your womb and bear a son…He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign…and of his Kingdom there will be no end" (Lk 1:30-33). Do we believe that the rulers of this earth will be pleased at the news that a new king is to be born? Luke tells us that Mary was "much perplexed!"at the angel's announcement, and why wouldn't she be?
Even more disturbing, even more troubling is the song this young woman sings as she hopes forward into history:
"My soul magnifies the Lord ...
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly,
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty" (Lk 1:46,51-53).
That is what this new king will do. That is what this Kingdom is going to be like.
Do we really want to pray, "thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth?" Do we really want that Kingdom? Those hopes? Like it or not, want it or not, that is the shape of history, says Jesus, that is history's prayer. And you know that it is so. Just look for yourselves.
"Look at the fig tree," says Jesus, "and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near." See for yourselves, read the signs, says Jesus. When you see walls tumbling and people negotiating for arms and seeking a peace more durable than a balance of terror, when you see agronomists breeding hybrid seeds that will grow in the sand of Ethiopia and clay of Bangladesh; when you see small pox defeated and polio on the run and people talking about AIDS as our problem rather than their problem—"when you see these things taking place, you know that the Kingdom of God is near." The Kingdom is not here, but near. These are the signs to know the Kingdom. "The hopes and fears of all the years are met" in the hope of the kingdom of God. But do we really want that Kingdom?
Not everyone does, of course. For some people, things are admirably arranged. Continual rounds of armament and rearmament are nothing if not profitable—it's only a business, after all. For some people, Ethiopia and Bangladesh are places far, far away. For some people the AIDS epidemic strikes conveniently precisely along the lines of their prejudices. What more could we hope for, some might say. What other set of circumstances would we want?
"Be on guard," Jesus warns, so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap…But watch," he says, and at all times pray.
Pray the prayer of history. At all times pray. Pray the prayer of "the hopes and fears of all the years," and all the people, and all the generations. At all times pray. Pray, "thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth."
We have prayed for peace, and still we wait. We have prayed for healing in the quiet corridors of the hospital. We have prayed for the healing of the creation. We pray, and we wait.
People make fun of prayer. It's so easy to make fun of prayer. It's easy to poke fun at worshipers, vulnerable people who put themselves out on a limb of faith to pray to God, asking for such extravagant Christmas gifts as peace, food for the hungry, a treatment for AIDS. It is so much easier to hope reasonable hopes, smaller hopes, manageable hopes.
So Jesus warns us to be "not weighted down with dissipation" but "be alert, at all times praying." Pray, "thy Kingdom come." Pray the prayer of history, because that is the shape of the future. All the signs point to it. "Look at the fig tree and all the trees," Jesus says, look wherever you may, and you will see for yourself. We are moving forward-, we are going somewhere. History is not wandering aimlessly through time but has a destination in God. "The hopes and fears of all the years" are not our futile dreamings but are rather the reflection in our eyes of God's design for history. "The hopes and fears of all the years" and all the people have their origin in God and their destination in a heavenly Kingdom. Look. Watch. Be alert. Pray at all times.
In Advent we watch, and we pray, and we look toward Bethlehem. In the ordinary place, in the very midst of our troubled history, "the hopes and fears of all the years" meet in one whom we would call the Christ of God. We look for the invasion of peace. We look for the dawn of a new day. We look for more than we dare say.
Pray nonetheless. Pray "the hopes and fears of all the years." Pray for the coming of the Christ. Pray for his rule. Pray like this, he said, "hallowed be thy name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done."
Pray that, because all history prays that prayer.
Pray, "thy Kingdom come, thy will be done," because that is the one prayer that we know will ultimately be answered.
Patrick J. Willson