Christmas Eve (Year B17, Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14)
Tonight, on this most holy of nights, Christians around the world are drawn to sanctuaries just like this one. Quietly and gently we will travel through darkness to come together in these houses of worship; to sing familiar Christmas carols, to hear the sacred story of our faith, and to watch these candles throw their light.
There is an indescribable magic about Christmas Eve. It’s like in the core of our being we know this night is special. We know at some intuitive level that the boundary between heaven and earth is that much more permeable. You see it in the way we talk with each other, in the way we smile more readily, in the way we try not to cut the other person off on the way to church.
Because this night is special. This is the night that the Prince of Peace was born. And deep down inside us all we believe that we can be touched by this peace, this peace that God has promised, the peace that passes all understanding, yet at times seems so elusive or absent from our lives.
Tonight we have heard the prophet Isaiah beautifully describe God’s promise of peace. “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.”
Endless peace … forevermore. Now doesn’t your soul just crave that kind of peace – a peace that lasts longer than a Tylenol? Doesn’t our world need that kind of peace?
During the last century there was a tradition of observing a Christmas truce – a tradition that started on this night back in 1914 when hundreds, if not thousands of men on the western front started singing carols and songs. Next came the request not to fire, and soon the unthinkable happened: the shadowy shapes of soldiers emerged from their trenches, and gathered together in no-man’s land, laughing, joking and sharing gifts.
I read about this truce earlier this week in a diary that belonged to Private Richard Jeffreys from Kitchener, Ontario. Now Richard Jeffreys died a number of years ago, so it was his daughter who actually passed his diary along, because she thought that there was something really important that her father wrote that needed to be remembered. And so I’d like to start by reading his entry, dated December 24th, 1914.
“Christmas Eve today. Very cold but very much better than the rain. At least we can keep dry. About six o’clock the Germans started singing songs and we replied. Then they called out Happy Christmas and lit lights along the trenches. We did likewise, and I sat on the parapet with candles and night lights. There was no firing. One of our fellows went out and met one of the Germans and took him cigarettes and a cake and brought back some wine, and after that several of our fellows did likewise.”
“December 25th, Friday, Christmas Day. A sort of impromptu armistice. We did not fire and the Germans did not. We all came out of the trenches and wandered around. Found some old bicycles and rode up and down the road at the back.
Went out in front and spoke to the Germans, exchanged buttons and addresses, etc. Spoke to several in French and shook hands with them. Apparently they do not want to fight any more than we do. Most amazing day I have ever seen, and would not have missed it for anything.”
A couple years ago the Royal British Legion and Sainsbury produced a TV ad to commemorate this extraordinary event, an ad that I’d like to show you right now…
Just over one hundred years ago this night, Private Richard Jeffreys along with hundreds, if not thousands of men along the western front did the unthinkable by observing a Christmas truce.
They courageously dropped their weapons and gathered together in no-man’s land; a spontaneous effort by the lower ranks to act like men… and create a peace that could have blossomed were it not for the interference of generals and politicians who dragged these men back down into the muddy trenches for four more years.
Christmas peace seems to be such a transitory thing. Which makes you wonder what’s wrong with us? Is there some fundamental flaw in our human nature? Why do we fight with each other? Why do our marriages fall apart? Why do we shout at our kids? Why do we gossip about coworkers? Why is it that peace is so hard for us?
Because we might leave here tonight with a feel-good holy buzz, but by the time you sit down for Christmas dinner tomorrow, surrounded by family, and the room is just a-humming with noise, and your sister-in-law says “what a lovely table” but you know she doesn’t mean it. And your kids are like “yuckkk” and ask for ketchup. And there’s a pile of laundry that nobody but you seems to know exists. And you look around at all these faces, and you think to yourself, maybe I was secretly adopted, ‘cause these people are all crazy… your peace has scattered to the winds.
And maybe you’re thinking living in peace and harmony would be easy if everyone would just stop bugging you, but there’s far more to having peace than that, because we ourselves are often the ones who sabotage any chance we have for peace. You see, first and foremost, we’re not at peace with ourselves, and that’s a hard thing to admit.
And so because we are people who often act out our fears and insecurities by hurting and harming one another, God sent us his son, Jesus, the Prince of Peace, to show us the way to be in right relationship with God, with each other, and with ourselves, to guide our feet on the way of peace.
On the night of his arrest, with only a few final hours remaining, Jesus begins to sum up his ministry by telling the disciples, “I have spoken these things to you, so that in me, you may have peace.”
So how do we begin? Well, where does it always begin? It begins with me and it begins with you. It begins when our hearts become the manger that cradles the Prince of Peace. It begins with a commitment to love God and each other, with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength. This is the hardest thing we’ll ever do, but it will change the way we walk through our imperfect world.
For example, the first black baseball player in the American League was a rookie named Larry Doby. He played for the Cleveland Indians in 1947. He was reputed to be a good player, and an excellent hitter.
However, his very first at bat was a total disaster. He swung at the first three pitches and missed them all by at least a foot. The fans shouted obscenities and booed him off the field.
Larry Doby stared at the ground as he walked back to the dugout. He went to the end of the bench, sat down, and put his head in his hands. The next batter was second baseman Joe Gordon, an All Star hitter, who had always hit this particular pitcher well. Everyone there knew that Joe Gordon could easily crank that ball out of the park. He stepped up to the plate, swung at the first three pitches, and missed each pitch by at least a foot.
The fans couldn’t believe it, and a huge silence fell over the crowd. Joe Gordon stared at the ground as he walked back to the dugout. He went to the end of the bench, sat down beside Larry Doby, and put his head in his hands.
Now people still wonder if he struck out on purpose. Of course, nobody knows, but it was reported that from that day on, Larry Doby never went out onto the baseball field without first picking up Joe Gordon’s glove and handing it to him.
And even if this act on the part of Joe Gordon meant what we think it did, it did not cure the evil of prejudice in the stadium that day, but it did represent everything that one person could do at that time, in that place, under those circumstances.
Our lives are measured only by how much we love one another. We are called to love one another, just like Jesus loves us. When we forgive someone, Jesus forgives. When we comfort someone, Jesus comforts. When we love, Jesus loves. By this, and only by this, we will find the peace we long for, the peace we dream about – the peace that passes all understanding.
Because the peace that we experience by gathering in this sanctuary on this holy night is a peace that is transitory – a peace that will evaporate like the Christmas truce, unless that peace is grounded by the indwelling presence of the Prince of Peace within our hearts.
The good news is that God has already reached out to us some 2,000 years ago by sending us his son on that sacred night when heaven and earth kissed. And by simply reaching back and being open to God’s love, our lives will be transformed by Jesus and we will at last experience the peace that Isaiah described, the peace that we have been promised, the peace we crave, the peace that is eternal. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rev. Victor Kishak, Rector,
Church of the Holy Saviour