Hope. You see and hear that word everywhere at this time of year, but what does it actually mean? When we look at history, we see many examples of Christmases that were less than hope-filled. Under such circumstances, is “Christmas hope” a mere illusion?

One of the most “unhopeful” Christmases in history was the Christmas of 877-878. On January 6, 878, the height of the medieval Christmas celebration, a Danish king named Guthrum made a surprise attack on the English kingdom of Wessex. The king of Wessex, King Alfred, was forced to flee for his life. In one night, the secure, happy kingdom was plunged into despair.

The enemy had won.

It was a dark, fear-filled time for Alfred’s kingdom. For a time, most of his subjects didn’t even know if he was alive or dead. The Danes were well-known for their ruthlessness, cruelty, and evil religious practices. They were incredibly skilled too, outstripping the Saxons in many areas. The situation of Wessex seemed hopeless.

As the Saxons cowered in their homes, terrified of the future, they could never have guessed that these times were the beginning of a season of revival and renewal that would set the course of English history for centuries to come.

To the people of Wessex, it seemed as though their king had lost. Perhaps King Alfred himself thought that he had failed. But as he hid in the marshes of Athelney, he began to form new plans. As spring approached, he secretly began to muster an army, a force that would eventually match the Danish army in size.

A few weeks after Easter, King Alfred marched out of Selwood Forest at the head of this army. And, with God’s help, the Saxons routed the Danes in a glorious victory. Having won peace for his people, King Alfred began to build up his kingdom, laying foundations for education and government that are still in place today.

This story of light emerging in the darkest of times, reminds me of another Christmas, 800 years earlier. The first Christmas, in fact, when, in the humblest of circumstances, God Himself entered history to live and die for His people. The world had waited for the Messiah so much longer than Wessex had to wait for the return of their king.

But just as one would not have expected the defeated King Alfred to be the one to save his nation, many could never have imagined that the Baby in the manger had come to save the world.

And the salvation He brought – the victory over sin and death itself – was, of course, far, far greater than the achievements of Alfred the Great. In fact, Alfred was only one of many thousands of servant leaders who had the strength to do what they did because they trusted in the power and love of this Saviour.

The Hope that Jesus brought is the true hope of Christmas. It is much more than the hope for a better new year, or the hope that all our dreams will come true. It is based on the irrefutable fact, demonstrated in history, and revealed in the Bible, that God loves His people. No matter how dark things may be, He is with us. Through Jesus Christ, He has given us victory. Someday, we will know the full joy of that victory.  

Remember that, this Christmas, and “may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13).