A Sermon for the Eve of the Nativity of our Lord, Year B
This time of year is a good one for those of us who still listen to local radio stations. Certainly I enjoy listening to the service of Lessons and Carols broadcast from King’s College over public radio. But I also enjoy the “all-Christmas-music” stations that play many classics as well some newer holiday songs.
I must confess, until this year, I don’t think I had ever heard “Dominick the Christmas Donkey” – the story of this other side-kick of Santa’s who has to help when St. Nick gets to Italy. It’s a classic. On one of these stations I heard a song from my childhood that always takes me back, “Snoopy’s Christmas vs. the Red Baron,” also known as “Christmas Bells” sung by The Royal Guardsmen. I had the 8-track as a child!
Little did I know singing along to that song as a child that the story line was based on a real incident. Set aside Snoopy and the Red Baron and you’ll find that for at least one shining moment during the First World War, goodwill did reign over that part of the earth. Peace had its day.
One hundred years ago this very night, one of the most peculiar occurrences connected with Christmas took place, and people are still talking about it.
It was in the region of Ypres in Belgium. British and German troops were dug in. In these early days of the war how could they have known how long the war would last or how many thousands of their comrades would die. When the war started in August 1914, early predictions had that the war would be over by Christmas. But Christmas 1914 came, and the war was nowhere near over.
No one is quite sure how it began, but British soldiers noticed on Christmas Eve that the German soldiers were lighting candles and decorating trees and even their trenches with them. Then the sounds of “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night) crossed the no man’s land between them. The British soldiers returned with “Christians Awake.”
Soon with no thought to their safety, British and German soldiers were crossing the cratered ground between their trenches to exchange gifts: jam, cigars, chocolate, and, of course, schnapps. There were even reports of a football match between the sides, with Germany winning 3-2.
The goodwill spread down the line, in some places it was reported that hostilities were ended until after the New Year. The goodwill had spread mostly among younger soldiers, their superior officers warned them that fraternizing with the enemy could be considered desertion. But these threats did not stop the determination these soldiers had to celebrate peace instead of war. For those few days, the Prince of Peace reigned instead of the Kaiser, the Tsar, or the King.
Do you wonder if miracles ever really happen at Christmas? You need look no further than the miracle of the Christmas Truce in 1914.
There is one aspect of the celebration of Christmas that captures my imagination more than any other. That is the seeming struggle of light against darkness.
During the season of Advent, we have been lighting one extra candle each Sunday, our growing light chasing away the darkness.
Can there be any greater symbol than light, especially as we have just passed the Winter Solstice. This is indeed the darkest time of the year. The days are at their shortest – the nights at their longest. Is it any wonder then that the three major holidays taking place concurrently, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa use light as major symbols? Add to this list the Hindu feast of Diwali. In all of these festivals, light plays a central role, usually candles.
In this season of darkness, we kindle fire, we light lights. This is an action born in hope. The prophet Isaiah told of a time when a people who walked in darkness would see a great light. The light he is speaking of is not the Rockefeller Christmas tree but the true light that has come into the world. It enlightens everyone and the darkness has not overcome it.
The light that the Christ Child represents on Christmas morning is the promise of God’s love for us. God has not abandoned us. God’s intention is that we have light and not be left wandering in the darkness.
This promise of light, fulfilled in the Christ Child is a promise that is meant to bring us hope. We live in a world that continues to be plagued with darkness. Violence and division seem to be everywhere in the news these days. It may seem at times that the darkness is winning. But the message of Christmas morning remains light, the light that drives away the darkness that does not understand it, and this light brings us hope.
Of course, it wasn’t a candle lying in a manger that brings us hope. It was a child. The miracle of Christmas morning is the Incarnation. The Incarnation, God made flesh, is one of the boldest and most revolutionary statements that we as Christians claim every time we recite the creeds.
By his Incarnation, Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, not only embodied the light that has shined in the darkness, but he has also restored a relationship that had been lost. In his birth, Jesus has reunited Heaven to Earth and Earth to Heaven.
This year, might we linger at the manger, consider the mystery of the incarnation, and, like Mary, ponder these things in our hearts? This year, might we remember a moment of peace in the midst of a terrible war, 100 years ago tonight? Might that inspire us to choose peace instead of violence, hope instead of despair?
As the light has come to its brightest in the child who is born this night, let us celebrate that light in what is often a dark world. Let us kindle the light of Christmas in our hearts this night and let us carry it forth into the world that the light may continue to grow and spread. The light has come. Our light has come. May it truly banish the darkness and bring us the hope born in the Prince of Peace. Amen.