For weeks now, all roads have led to Bethlehem, at least metaphorically. All our thoughts were of joyful anticipation and hope. Bethlehem was the focus of “the hopes and fears of all the years” as Phillips Brooks penned it. Bethlehem, it seemed, was the destination of everyone.
But now, as a new year is upon us, the movement changes. Christmas is over and rather than go to Bethlehem, we will “get out of town” and leave Bethlehem. And that is pretty scary!
What happens to us when we leave Bethlehem? What happens to us when we turn from the loveliness and promise of Christmas to a world of uproar and confusion? Bedlam – that is what happens.
“Bedlam,” incidentally, is a term derived from the Bethlem Royal Hospital in London. In its long history, this great psychiatric facility has been known by various names, including Saint Mary Bethlehem, Bethlem Hospital, Bethlehem Hospital and, informally and most notoriously, “Bedlam.” From Bethlehem to Bedlam!
This movement from Bethlehem to bedlam is something that occurs every year. By a crazy quirk of the Gregorian calendar, we turn in one week from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve. In a mere seven days, we turn from the serenity of the nativity at Christmas to the carefree bedlam of New Year’s Eve. I must admit that I have never been one to cuddle up to the pious observation of participation in a watchnight service of singing, praying and testimonials, held late on New Year’s Eve in church. I believe that there is a time for gaiety and spontaneous fun, as well as a time for quiet prayer. For me, at least, New Year’s Eve has always meant the former, and never the latter. Therefore, I hope that each of you reading this had a great time on New Year’s Eve. I hope that you had a happy bedlam!
But then, each of us awakened today – New Year’s Day – not only to face at least six football games and as many parades, but also to face a world in bedlam, serious bedlam. For each of us, there will still be all the problems that we had to face in the year just passed. The personal problems will still be there. Some of us will face sickness. Many will face unemployment. Still others will face struggling to find out who we really are. And some will even face death. The world still brings its tough problems and tragedies to us. For us, it is the same old bedlam, the same old world, and the same old madhouse, promising to stretch on in the year ahead as we take the road away from Bethlehem and into bedlam.
But what else should we expect? We know that birth is always a struggle with pain and peril. That statement is true whether we are talking about the birth of a child or talking about the birth of a new idea. For when something new is born, the old never gives up without a struggle. There is nothing unique about a new birth having to face opposition and possible death. We would like to think otherwise, but when something new comes into the world, it always turns immediately from Bethlehem to bedlam.
And that is tough. We seem to make it even tougher because of our inordinate appetite for utopian dreams, payable on demand. Our roads to Bethlehem almost invariably go overboard in expecting heaven on earth – immediately. We talk piously of the coming of the Prince of Peace as if all we have to do is pray hard enough and take Christmas seriously enough and as a result there will be peace on earth overnight! Voilà!
And yet, deep down, we know that our utopian dreams are impossible in a world such as ours. We still continue to have wars. Perhaps we can avoid a nuclear holocaust because of our fear of mutual destruction, but look at all the brush fire wars, such as those in Yemen, North-West Pakistan, Syria, and the forces of ISIL. Who knows where and/or what will break out in this coming year or in the years following!
Because of the kind of world in which we live, we seem to be committed to the proposition that we must look after ourselves because no one else is going to do it for us. As individuals, this proposition works out fairly well because usually mixed in with it are healthy doses of love and unselfishness. But it seems that when we are gathered into nations, love and unselfishness seem to go out the window. Peace on earth? Don’t bet on it. Mutual understanding among nations? Not overnight, not the way I see it. And I am not by nature either a cynic or a pessimist. (OK, I admit it. I am something of a cynic.)
But as I see it, instead of a growing sense of peace, our world is gripped by a mounting sense of fear and anxieties. We have recently experienced that pervasive emotion in almost every phase of our life. The content of that fear has struck us in successive waves: the fear of a possible worldwide Ebola epidemic; fear of a renewed war in the Middle East; fear of beheadings by ISIL carried out on live television; fear of rising racial tensions in our land and the sad fact that racism is by no means dead in this country; fear of retaliation because our government engaged in brutal methods of torture and then lied about it to the people, to the members of Congress, and even to the President; fear that politics seem to be controlled not by issues or voters, but by big, corporate money; fear of age-old attempts by males to control the bodies of women and to determine what services a woman can receive through her job-related health care insurance; fear of blatant attempts in some states to limit or to curtail the voting rights of minorities by making it more difficult and more expensive to vote; and fear of challenges to freedoms long enjoyed by segments of our population and the potential threat that these freedoms may well be taken away. And these concerns are just the tip of the iceberg.
This is the bedlam that awaits us once we leave Bethlehem and, yes, it is scary, but it also challenges us.
The challenge to us as we leave Bethlehem and head for bedlam is to acknowledge that every life – black, white, Latino, Asian, male, female, bisexual, gay, lesbian, straight, Christian, Jew, Moslem – every person is of worth and this reality must be acknowledged if we are to survive as a species called Homo sapiens (Latin for “wise men”). We live in a deeply interdependent world. Germs, viruses, deadly diseases, tsunamis, earthquakes, and hurricanes, for example, do not appear to recognize national boundaries, racial boundaries, or economic boundaries.
The challenge to us as we leave Bethlehem and head for bedlam is to answer the questions: Are we not yet willing to allow women the freedom to make their own reproductive decisions? Are women human beings or just fetus incubators?
The challenge to us as we leave Bethlehem and head for bedlam is to answer the questions: Can the world survive when some are dieting while millions starve? Can the world endure when some live in tax-sheltered luxury with accounts in the Cayman Islands, while others live below poverty levels? Can the world persist when education becomes so expensive that it no longer offers a doorway to opportunity? Can the world subsist if we continue to deny that climate change exists or that it is even a problem?
Welcome to Bedlam!
In the days just after the beginning of World War Two, King George VI gave his 1939 Christmas broadcast to the British Empire. In that speech, he quoted words that were the preamble to an obscure poem written in 1908 by Minnie Louise Haskins entitled God Knows, (more popularly known as The Gate of the Year). The King began: “A new year is at hand. We cannot tell what it will bring. If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings us continued struggle we shall remain undaunted.” He then went on to quote the preamble of the poem. The words were widely acclaimed as inspirational in those dark and uncertain days of 1939. May they speak to us as we leave Bethlehem and face the bedlam that awaits us in 2015.
The Gate of the Year
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.
Happy New Year!