“they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the LORD to Zion”
I was fifty back in October; a time for reflection.
I thought about when I was eighteen, there was a whole life ahead and a whole world to be conquered. We lived in a village where there wasn’t even a shop, there was a bus to our village once a week. I earned seventy pence an hour with a summer job on a local nursery, (even in 1979 £28 a week didn’t buy very much). There was nothing to do and nowhere to go, but there was this sense of irrepressible optimism. Life was good at eighteen.
Life at eighteen was filled with laughter. There were serious decisions to be made about where we were going after our A levels, but nothing was so serious that it weighed us down. The view ahead seemed much clearer. We had ideas about where our life was going, where we would be in ten years time. No setback would be insurmountable—I remember Rachel, who was a year and two days younger than me, she was very bright and very talented; she had gone for an interview at Oxford, but had been unsuccessful. We were standing in a cluster in the foyer of our sixth form college and she came bouncing in– “I got rejected by Oxford”. It was no problem to her. Last time I saw her was twenty-five years ago, she was president of the student union at Birmingham University. I hope she went on to great things. Life was great at eighteen.
At eighteen life was clear and simple. Things were plain to see. Nothing was going to stop us; nothing was going to get us down. There might have been a shortage of realism, there was certainly no shortage of optimism.
Being eighteen is a distant memory for most of us. The bubbling enthusiasm of those teenage years has probably long since gone flat. Somewhere along the way we lost something; somewhere the flame that lit up those days when it seemed that life would last forever has been quenched; somewhere the spark has gone.
Yet if Christmas is not about the relighting of that flame, if it is not about reigniting hope and joy an irrepressible enthusiasm in our lives, then it is about nothing at all.
Isaiah has a vision about a time to come, “they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the LORD to Zion”. The people of Isaiah’s time had lost hope, their country had been destroyed, many of their loved ones had died, everything had been lost. If you had tried to be an optimist amongst them, they would have told you that you didn’t know what you were talking about. Isaiah comes along and he says to them that the world is going to once more be like the way they remembered it when they were eighteen, (or whatever would be the appropriate age 2,600 years ago). There is going to be joy, and things are going to be plain to see, and God is going to be clearly present (life seemed like that when I was eighteen- if you leave out the God bit!).
Isn’t that what we sing about when we sing ‘O little town of Bethlehem’? When we sing,
“yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting Light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.”
aren’t we saying that all those dreams we had when we were young are still there in our hearts? Aren’t we expressing optimism, however faint, that our hopes and fears, the thoughts we are too shy, or frightened, or embarrassed, even to express, will be answered through the person born as a little baby in Bethlehem?
We need those hopes, we need a vision of the a future where life makes sense, in order to get through this life. If we don’t have a flame of optimism, if we don’t believe that at some point, no matter how far off, there is going to be a moment when things are plain to see and when everything is explained, then what are we left with? If this life is all there is, then what’s the point? If our only life is in the here and now, then the world is an evil place because there is, in that case, no justice and no meaning.
We need to be eighteen again, not to do the sort of daft things I did when I was eighteen, not to make the sort of stupid mistakes I made, but to have the vision and the optimism that we lose with the passing years.
William Blake, the English 18th Century poet who wrote the words of the hymn Jerusalem, wrote a collection of poems called Songs of Innocence and Experience. In Blake’s view of life we start out as naïve and innocent, and then reality and experience set in and we become hardened to the world, but beyond experience we can recapture the joy we knew when we were innocent.
In the last poem of the collection, The Voice of the Ancient Bard, he writes:
Youth of delight! come hither
And see the opening morn,
Image of Truth new-born.
Doubt is fled, and clouds of reason,
Dark disputes and artful teazing.
Blake would have understood the joy of being eighteen; he would have advised that there would be difficult years ahead, but that the joy felt on could be recaptured.
The child born this night in Bethlehem would have understood the joy of the teenage years and the pain of adult years. Yet in him the flame never goes out, as Saint John says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”.
If being a Christian means anything, it surely means that we have hope and joy and a vision of a better world to come. May God give us grace to be eighteen once more.