A CHRISTMAS EVE MEDITATION
24 December 2014
James Ishmael Ford
First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island
We’ve just received a lovely letter from our sister congregation in Transylvania, written by their minister the Rev. Szabolcs Kelemen. Let me share it with you.
One hundred years ago, on 24th December, the world changed. It was a unique experience of love between people. World War I was a destructive war. On that day, although the politics of war existed, things were different on the battlefield. A divine peace came to the world; the soldiers did not fire their guns. British and Germans looked at each other in the trenches, and were filled with the Christmas spirit. In this way they celebrated the example of Jesus’ love, and followed his message of peace.
This event is a great example for us, to learn the spirit of Christmas, to think about it and to understand each other. It is a time to remember that love conquers all, if we believe in it.
Although we are separated by a great distance we share much. The most powerful thing is our love for each other. May all members of your congregation feel the spirit of love during this Christmas season.
And then he concludes, We wish all the best to you during this special time of year.
Many, I assume most of us here are familiar with the Christmas peace of 1914 to which Reverend Kelemen alludes in his letter. It is one of those events that violates our well-earned, finely honed cynicism about how things are expected to go. It was so out of place in the normal course of things we might even call it a miracle. So, I understand why when he wrote us Reverend Kelemen would allude to that event which happened exactly one hundred years ago today.
The Great War as our grandparents or great grandparents called it was like too many wars, where from any distance at all it is hard to understand what justified the terror and carnage. It was a horrific thing this war. What we know with certainty is that Europe was torn asunder by a terrible conflict and was awash in blood. Soldiers were in trenches that fronted on each other, and they would regularly assault each other, when hundreds and more would die to take inches of ground. And they did it again, and over again. Think hell on earth. Think the way things are. Or, our current term: It is what it is.
Then six months into the conflict on Christmas Eve, exactly one hundred years ago, into the cold and mud and fear and across the gulf of trenches and guns a young German soldier began singing Silent Night. Then, magically, some of the young British soldiers responded in kind. And then the miracle happened. A young German soldier under a white flag advanced to his enemies, bearing gifts. And the conflict stopped. Right through Christmas day the war stopped. At least that little part of it.
The generals did not appreciate this, and while there were attempts to claim this peace by the ordinary soldiers again, against the threat of execution from their officers, they failed. And so in the beat of a heart the miracle was over. But, still, and to this day we remember.
I know I find my heart called to that day a hundred years ago. A few beats of the heart to this day, to this evening.
And I think of the lessons.
First, I notice that the people we most likely would identify with, the people on whose side our nation would enter that war not long after, did not sing the song first. And it wasn’t a young British soldier braving being shot carrying a peace flag. The Christmas peace came from the enemy.
There’s something. Peace came from an unexpected quarter.
Kind of like the Christmas story. It was not unlike hope, peace, joy, coming to us in the birth of a child, an ordinary child.
When we tell the story here at First Unitarian in our annual Christmas pageant, like this past Sunday, the Christ child is usually a baby born close enough to Christmas to be a small baby. But we don’t worry too much beyond that. The baby Jesus has been a little girl several times. I remember when baby Jesus had two dads. I also recall that year when there were three families who had their babies within days of each other, and we decided, well, we have three aisles, and so we proceeded to tell the story with three holy families.
This season we notice is the season of ordinary hope. Ordinary. Just like a little girl baby Jesus. Just like some war weary soldiers calling a halt to the hostilities.
The miraculous that in fact can only be found in the ordinary.
Out of this ordinariness brought to us by a child, brought to us by an enemy who refuses to fight brings with it a call to us: to work, to the real work of our lives, to the work of Christmas.
Howard Thurman sings to us of this work of Christmas, of these ordinary miracles:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers (and sisters),
To make music in the heart.
May this work, the Christmas work, may it continue until all are healed, until the conflicts all are stilled, till we find the meaning hidden in that silent night.
Merry Christmas, dear ones.