“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” On this very day one hundred years ago there was one amazing glimmer of light in a great sea of darkness. It was Christmas Eve 1914. Soldiers were dug deep into the trenches of World War I across Europe. The hope that the war would be over by Christmas disappeared as the temperatures dropped across the Western Front, and a sense of despair settled over the soldiers. And then, on Christmas Eve, strange things began to happen. On a few battlefields, the Germans decorated their front line with Christmas trees and candles. Melodies of carols began to drift from the British camp, loud enough for the Germans to hear, and some of them joined in. When the sun rose, the soldiers at these battle sites spontaneously and informally agreed to a daylong truce.
Soldiers emerged from the trenches and walked tentatively into the no man’s land between their front lines. Someone produced a soccer ball, and soon there was a British-German informal soccer game. It has been called the Christmas Truce and it highlights a moment of hope in a dark and dreary war.
Across Europe, a number of countries have organised events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Christmas Truce. But the one that caught my fancy took place in Israel. There, a youth soccer competition captured the true spirit of the Christmas Truce. More than 200 Arab and Jewish students from northern Israel played soccer on Dec. 15. Not only was this a lovely way to remember what happened 100 years ago, but it coming, as it did, on the heels of a gruesome war in Gaza just a few months ago, it symbolised a deep wish for unity and reconciliation. The radio commentator said: “Here, we have an island of equality, and we need to develop projects like this … especially at this age. This is when we can change the next generation.”
There is no doubt that Christmas never fails to cast a magic spell even to the point of being taken up by Jews and Arabs. The real game changer of course is not a soccer match but the Incarnation. Christmas proclaims the Incarnation, that God is among us, one of us. It is a mystery so all-encompassing that it is invisible. Like DNA, it is the organising principle of evolution itself. To be is to be in God, of God, for God. Jesus arrives not to bring this mystery about but to reveal it.
Our humanity has a divine destiny. Our hunger for identity, purpose and meaning finds its answer in that we are made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore history cannot be about winners and losers, or the survival of the fittest. Why? Because every life matters. Every life is essential to the wholeness and ultimate glory of God’s body in the world, the Christ of Christmas.
Every life matters, in every city, enclave, village, favela, barrio, slum or refugee camp. Every life lost diminishes us all. Every death before its time, every child born into poverty, denied basic health care, food, clean water, education, opportunity, impoverishes us all. The life we save is our own, a member of the one family we need to be fully human. Thus Gaudium et Spes, one of the great documents of Vatican II makes bold to say: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”
Gaudium et Spes, “Joy and Hope,” are the message of Christmas to a weary world, a rallying cry and gathering place for anyone eager for a fresh start, healing and renewal toward a future that is more fair, humane, respectful of every life, its gifts and potential welcomed and nurtured.
The Incarnation is both pure grace and a work in progress. Christmas has yet to find a home in many hearts or a voice of hope within our communities. How can we make it real in our lives? Christmas is not about the arrival of a committee, a focus group, a board, an organisation, a hierarchy or a panel of experts. It’s about the birth of a baby. Perhaps God also shares something of our mistrust of organisations! Perhaps!
He certainly shared our abhorrence for coercion, and wanted us to respond freely to his invitation. And so he did not send force, or put on a display so dazzlingly convincing that it would override our freedom to choose. Our faith is not a quick fix. But Christmas can offer us the reassurance that God will not be overcome by chaos, sadness, or cynicism. It calls for a turnaround, a conversion. The focus must be on God, not on ourselves. “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.”
Whatever your past failures or future anxieties, God is always in the present moment, and all things are possible. Let this blessed assurance be the first gift of Christmas, to yourself and to everyone you love or will love in the days to come.
A different world is possible. A different world is necessary. We are in this together, the one body of humanity, animated by one Holy Spirit, a living, breathing solidarity of shared purpose, God among us, in us, for us. It is a mystery so much bigger than any of us, but needs each of us to be complete.
Thursday, 25th December 2014