Christmas Eve, December 24, 2021
Principle Lessons: Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:1-14
It was Christmas Eve – a frozen night already deep into the winter of 1914. This tale happened in the cold trenches of war, as troops massed in troughs and furrows and pits, behind hedgerows and farm-walls and makeshift stands during what would become known as The Great War – the War to End All Wars. Indeed, it’s a story that finds its way from the First World War, even one hundred, seven years later because it’s a story that speaks to Christmas, the Incarnation, and the great Christmas gamble of God choosing to become one like us.
Against all odds, on Christmas Eve 1914, in the midst of the brutality of war, in the midst of deep gloom and darkness, despair hung in the air! And make no mistake, it was despairing, such that JRR Tolkien would write of that first year of the war, “The enemy? What lies or threats led him on this long march from home. If he would not rather have stayed there in peace. War will make corpses of us all.” Countrymen, brothers, friends, and fellow human beings lay dead or dying all along the front, covered in frost but unable to be retrieved for burial. French, German, English, Canadian, Indian, Scot, Irish, and Malay soldiers huddled in trenches to fight the most brutal war the world had yet seen. It was just a few months into what would be a four-year conflagration of brutal machine-gun warfare, chemical attacks, and genocide. Eight million soldiers and countless more civilians would die before the war’s ignominious end.
But it was in that despair, in that gloom and shadow, amidst the death and violence, that light began to shine. Quite literally, candlelight began to shine from somewhere deep in the cold trenches of war. From somewhere along the German lines, candles appeared atop barriers and walls, on watchtowers and railings, where just hours before riflemen had been firing bullets across the battlefield at even the slightest puff of a cigarette. It’s as though Isaiah is reminding us, even “those who live in a land of deep darkness, on them a light has shined.”
It began, the tale goes, when some of the Germans dared to hope by putting lights out on the parapets. They dared to hope on Christmas Eve, and they began to sing:
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Indeed, into despair light began to shine! In those trenches, on those parapets and barriers, against all expectations and against all hope, on Christmas Eve in 1914, there was a brief respite to war when light began to shine. At least for a moment, there was peace where there had been war, there was goodwill where there had been bloodshed and violence. German voices pierced the still and despairing darkness, echoing with “Silent Night! Holy Night! Sleep in heavenly peace!” – calling forth a night of peace that, until that moment, had been deafened by war and explosions, grief and violence, death and cold despair.
For a moment, at least, it seems that a weary world rejoiced as soldiers from France, England, and Scotland responded with carols of their own: “God rest ye merry, gentleman.”. There was suddenly a thrill of hope that would lead Tolkien to proclaim that “even in the midst of the greatest peril, hope never dies.” Then, there was a moment of inexplicable grace where instead of volleying fragmentation shells, grenades, and rifle fire across the battlefield, soldiers instead vollied the Good News that on this night Christ was born, and they began to sing as one: “O Come All Ye Faithful/joyful and triumphant.”
And so they did! Soldiers left their stations and their trenches, they walked out from behind barriers and walls, they abandoned their weapons of destruction and violence, and they entered “No Man’s Land.” Germans and Prussians, French and British walked among the dead and met the enemy on the battlefield; but, they did not meet to fight! No! If only for a moment, they met to bring glad tidings of great joy to all people, the good news of peace on earth, goodwill toward all. They came together to proclaim God, Emmanuel. They came together to gather and bury the dead. They came together to mourn, to see the light, and to remember their common humanity.
And in remembering their common humanity, those soldiers did something divine. They themselves became the image of the incarnation, where humanity and divinity become one.
Honestly, it seems an utterly preposterous story! For decades, people dismissed it as an idle tale, nothing more than rumor. It defied our common understanding and expectations. It was easier (and maybe still is) to pretend that it never happened because if it did, then there is hope that it might happen again. It did happen.It’s well documented by now,/ and I continue to marvel at the story – even one-hundred, seven years later! In their own way, those soldiers were re-enacting the very first Christmas story, the story of the Incarnation when the omnipotent and almighty entered the battlefield of earth as a helpless newborn without even the strength to hold his own head up. The story of the incarnation when the Creator, who brought forth life from the Word, becomes part of the creation, an infant dependent on inexperienced and impoverished parents to feed him, keep him warm, and to teach him about love and life.
At the incarnation, with the birth of Jesus, in the Word become flesh, God disarms completely. It was an absolutely insane and risky thing to do: trusting a people with such a horrible track record of violence and war with the birth of the son of God. But, that is precisely what God does! God gambles on us. It’s an incredulous, risky gamble when God bets on us, pushing all the chips in and saying, “No matter what I’m holding and no matter what you’re holding, no matter the cards left in the deck. I’m all here. I’m all in. I’m with you.”
This is the story of Christmas: No matter what, God is with us. Emmanuel!
We come here tonight out of the trenches of our own lives. We come here tonight having walked in our own darkness – in sundered friendships and broken relationships, being undervalued and overworked, with health scares and COVID risks. We come here tonight after the shopping, after the baking, after the hosting, even if we still have a to-do list waiting on us to finish before dawn breaks. We come here tonight for an hour or two because we know that the story has meaning, and invites us to something special. We come here tonight because we are reminded of the great, improbable, and risky gamble that God is indeed with us, our great light in often overwhelming darkness.
Here is the question we are faced with: What will I do with Christmas? Will I continue to man my wall, sitting in the cold trench awaiting the enemy? Or will I have the courage to name a Christmas truce, even for just a moment, a night, an evening? That is really all it takes – one evening, one night, one moment at a time because when we wrap them all together they become a string of nights and a plethora of moments that become a lifetime and beyond. God came to us on a silent night with the power to silence even the violence of the War to End All Wars. God came to us with a thrill of hope, with a weary world ready to rejoice, on this holy night when Christ is born.