The hopes and fears of all the years


Christmas is coming, though you would never know that from the weather around here, which has felt more like September than December. Hasn’t the fall been lovely?

Christmas comes each year, and we look forward to it with a mixture of anticipation and dread – anticipation mostly because we get to see family and loved ones, and dread, well, let’s just say there are lots of reasons. Many people I know do their best to avoid the holiday altogether, feeling enormous relief in January when the tree becomes compost and the decorations are put away again for another year. Marriage and family problems, to say nothing of employment and financial worries, can exaggerate the awful feelings we sometimes have at this time of year.

All of which is interesting (and sad) when you remember what Christmas is and what it means to tell us. Christmas, more than anything, is a story of origins. It’s like the creation story in that way because it tells us where we came from. Matthew and Luke begin their gospels with geneaologies and stories of angels and proclamations, as if to say, ‘Let’s remember how all of this started.’ Mary says, ‘Let it be to me according to your word,’ and ever since we have been people who look for the unexpected from God and then struggle to keep up. His plans are never quite our plans!

I’m one of those people who comes to the season with more anticipation than dread. I can remember Christmases of course that were unspeakably sad, mainly because of someone who had died the previous year and wouldn’t be with us for the first time, but mainly I remember Christmases that have been full of joy and love and even surprise.

Most years since my ordination the season has been a busy one, culminating in a kind of happy exhaustion at midnight on Christmas Eve. With three or four services on Christmas Eve, beginning with a family service in the afternoon and concluding with candelight communion at 11:00, the day has always been a long one. And then, for several years, there were toys or other things to assemble and wrap and place under the tree before heading off to bed in the wee hours of the morning. All I wanted for Christmas during those years was a nice, long nap in the afternoon.

Not surprisingly I am excited to be celebrating my second Christmas in Switzerland this year. This might be the only country on the planet where Christmas lights and decorations are really unnecessary. With a little snow on the ground, the village where I live comes to life and is transformed into the postcard view that most people imagine when they think of Switzerland, though the real thing is more beautiful than any painting. Walking the dog in the early morning, before anyone else is stirring, has been a gift, even though I complain about having to do it. I tug at the dog, or she tugs at me, and together we enjoy a land of surpassing beauty. I think she notices it too. How could she not?

But Christmas of course is about more than snow and beautiful Swiss villages and services that end at midnight. As much as I enjoy singing ‘Joy to the World’ each year in a darkened church, while clutching my tiny candle with its wavering light, I know that the story is way more powerful than all of the rituals I employ each year. I know for example that the savior of the world has been born, that the long wait is over, that the promise has at long last been fulfilled, that (as the carol puts it) ‘the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’

To be honest about it, the underlying meaning of the season has always made the inevitable sadness and disappointment seem bearable. I think, ‘God is at work in the world, quietly, of course, but unmistakably. All creation has been groaning for this, and now it has happened.’ And it’s then that I take my nap.

(Photo: Christmas lights on Bahnhofstrasse.)

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

6 Responses to The hopes and fears of all the years

  1. Sandy Steffen November 12, 2015 at 7:37 am #

    Wonderful blog as always Doug! I don’t know whether you remembered the Wilcox’s, but Roger lost his battle with cancer on Tuesday so please keep them in your thoughts & prayers. My bets to you & Susan too. Sandy

    • Doug November 14, 2015 at 4:47 am #

      Thanks for letting me know, Sandy. I will make contact with Diane. Sad news.

  2. Barbara Keith November 13, 2015 at 11:20 am #

    I always get a tear in my eye when I read your message. We do miss you at First Pres. We always wish for your return. Presently we are enjoying the Florida sunshine after heading “home” from Old Cape Cod. Our love and wishes to you and to Susan!,! We do miss you all! Fondly, Barb & Tom Keith

    • Doug November 14, 2015 at 4:49 am #

      Barb, it’s been so long! Thank you for posting a comment. And please say hi to Tom. Susan and I miss you both.

  3. Karen Parkinson November 13, 2015 at 11:50 am #

    This week I was looking for your Blog. I was so pleased to see it the week prior. I called Betty Strunk with Joy in my voice. When there was not a new one I clicked on William Willimon, and look forward to reading his book. As I appreciate the books you have written, I appreciate the authors you have given me an introduction. Betty loaned me 2 Sermons you Preached at Wheaton First Pres.
    With Good Thoughts,
    Karen Parkinson
    Wheaton, First Pres.

    • Doug November 14, 2015 at 4:49 am #

      Karen, am so glad for my loyal Wheaton readers. Miss you. Say hi to Betty. It’s been so long!