Nativity of the Lord, Year B
24 December 2020
Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)
Christmas time is story time. When I was young, during the month of December my family would gather on Saturday or Sunday evenings, sing Advent hymns, read stories, and eat Christmas cookies. It made my brother’s and my waiting for Christmas as good as Christmas itself, actually better – but that is another story.
There are innumerable Christmas stories and I have almost a whole shelf row full of collections of Christmas stories. One of those volumes is Alan Maitland’s “Fireside Al’s Treasury of Christmas Stories.” Perhaps you remember Fireside Al from CBC’s As It Happens many years ago.
And while some of those stories are fiction and some are accounts of events and encounters, all of them are true in the sense that they speak about what is human, what makes us tick, and the things that move us.
One of the most profound Christmas stories I have come across, is one many of you may have heard of. Like any good story, it is worth retelling. It is the Christmas ceasefire of 1914, across the trenches of WW I. 4
British historian Malcolm Brown writes “On Christmas Eve at Ploegsteert Wood in Flanders, Germans put Christmas trees on the parapet of their front-line trench and sang … Silent Night, then largely unfamiliar to British ears but instantly acknowledged as a carol of extraordinary beauty. Moved to respond the territorials opposite struck up with The First Noël. So it continued until, when the British sang O Come, All Ye Faithful, they heard the Germans joining in with the Latin words Adeste Fideles. Recalling the event many years later, one former soldier commented: ‘I thought this a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of the war.’”1
This Christmas truce allowed both parties to join for a burial service between the trenches with prayers first spoken in English by a battalion chaplain, followed in German by a young divinity student.
The truce also involved the sharing of Belgian beer and a bottle of rum, as well as soccer scrimmages.
This didn’t happen everywhere and not everyone approved, “Yet the general reaction was one of amazed acceptance of a happening that delighted far more than it dismayed. Letters home confirm the incredible nature of the occasion. ‘It would have made a good chapter in Dickens’s Christmas Carol,’ wrote one soldier. ‘Just you think,’ mused another, ‘that while you were eating your turkey I was out talking with the men I had been trying to kill a few hours before! It was astounding.’”2
This event happened only once and only in one place, but the fact that it happened at all speaks of our need to be together, to share, to recognize each other as human.
I thought of this story as I thought of this year’s Christmas, as people who wish to gather, here in this place, as families, friends, and neighbours, but cannot out of care and respect for one another. Yet the fact that we can’t gather except through the help of technology, does not change who we are. We are people who are part of community and who belong to communities, and we cannot imagine life in any other way. The only thing that may be different is that we are surprised to realize we even miss that pesky uncle of ours.
And now we celebrate Christmas, not only the feast of the family but of the Holy Family, and not only of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, but of God’s longing and intent to make all of humanity family.
The scriptures cannot imagine God without creation or without God’s people.
God creates the world, a living animated world, and creates people who are not puppets but able to choose and create relationships, and endowed with dignity as they are created in God’s own image.
When Israel sojourns through the wilderness and when they settle the land, God is in their midst.
When Isaiah the prophet announces God’s anointed, he calls him Immanuel, God with us (Isaiah 7:14), a name the angel repeats when he visits Joseph as Joseph plans to leave Mary his betrothed. Things have happened that have ruptured the relationship between God and humanity; and Jesus, Emmanuel, is God’s initiative to repair the breach and to re-establish our communion.
Looking at the Christmas story from the perspective of the pandemic makes it perhaps all the more profound that God’s movement is always toward us, God’s creation, God’s children.
God seeks relationship, lives for relationship, and we who are created in God’s image are wired the same way. And if we are feeling bereft this Christmas – as we have for the last nine months, we mirror how God feels when deprived of relationship with God’s creation.
The story of Jesus’ birth is told in the Gospel of Luke. The angel’s appearance to Joseph and the story of the scholars from the East are told in the Gospel of Matthew. Mark has no Christmas story but begins with John the Baptizer. But the Gospel of John speaks of Jesus by going all the way back to the beginning, to creation. “He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”
When our children were little and we would look at photos in which one or two were missing they would sometimes ask, “But where was I?” The answer was that they weren’t born yet, they were a thought of God. But God’s thoughts take on matter. God spoke and things were created. As much as God is not an idea, neither are we. We are flesh and blood, as well as spirit.
And so as God creates by speaking, creates light and darkness, land and fields and mountains, animals and birds and critters, and human beings, you and me, so God becomes flesh and blood, becomes human, becomes like us, in order to be with us.
And so our longing to be together that is at the heart of our being, and that we experience in a new way during this pandemic Christmas, is also the longing of God, and in that our longing is affirmed, and blessed, and valued.
When those German and British soldiers in Belgium at Christmas in 1914 reached out to one another, not only to celebrate Christmas, but to recognize each other’s humanity, to create community, it was the most human thing, and it turns out that it was also divine.
We are not able to celebrate the Christmas we want to celebrate this year, but we know that our longing is not only human but divine, and that it will be fulfilled as surely as God’s longing and our longing have been met in Jesus.
Thanks be to God.
1Malcolm Brown, When Peace Broke Out, The Guardian, 24 Dec 2001, https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2001/dec/24/christmas.features113