As I preach tonight, I want to open by letting you know that I’ve had several people come to me over the past few weeks and say things like, “It just doesn’t feel like Christmas,” or “I’m not sure I can muster my usual Christmas spirit this year.” And on a purely, non-data or at all researched approach to working with the numbers I simply keep in my own head, I’d say that the number of those types of comments has at least tripled, perhaps quadrupled this year over previous years. And maybe it’s more like five times, but there isn’t as common a word like ‘quadrupled’ for that comparison. And so we’ll stick with this. The point being that are a lot of people for whom what we call “the Christmas spirit” seems rather elusive right now. Maybe you’re one of those of those people. Maybe we all are.
Things are different, perhaps, than a year ago for all of us. Some for the good, some for the bad, some for the yet-to-be-determined. As a society, our divisions are glaring and I’d worry if we didn’t feel that. Voices are speaking that need to be heard but we’re not always sure to how hear them. What will we gain? What will lose when we listen – really listen to each other? Decisions are being made that we are deeply and painfully divided about what they mean and what impact they will have on us, on our neighbors, and our world. And so maybe things are different or least more obviously complicated, more blatantly divided and divisive than they were a year ago.
And yet we gather in this place having ‘Come all ye faithful.’ We sing of a silent night, a holy night. We hear the angels harking and we proclaim joy to the world! And so I wonder that if we are truly and collectively low in “Christmas spirit,” where are we? And what does all of this mean?
Well, first I think it’s important to remember that this is in some ways not about us, in that Christmas is not ours to pull off. As a people who culturally have bought into the myth of “controlling our outcomes,” this, being Christmas, isn’t something that we make happen. And as much as Hallmark would like us to think it is, neither is Christmas a feeling that we generate so that the holiday can be all that it can be.
Christmas is something that God generates. Christmas is something that God gives us and it is in that sense pure gift, pure grace. “Love came down at Christmas,” the hymn says. Love came down and love comes down still. We and our world can be in any sorts or conditions and Christmas will come! This is God’s doing. God with us. God for us. And there is nothing we can do or not do to impede that grace. And that’s good news; it’s humbling and holy good news.
And yet, we also have a role in this. There is grace to receive, but I don’t think that reception is purely passive. The Christmas spirit is paradoxically out of our hands, and something that we must insist on taking hold. And how we go about that matters too.
And so I want to tell you an old story about what became known as the Christmas Armistice. You probably know this story and it might even rank as the-story-most-shared-in-Christmas-sermons -ever, and so there is nothing original here people. But I do think we need to reclaim what’s at its heart. And I want us to reclaim it with all that we have and so I’m going to remind you of the highlights of this particular event.
In 1914, in World War I, during the days around Christmas, French, German and British soldiers crossed over what were very deeply dug lines of trenches. And they crossed those lines in order to exchange Christmas greetings and very simply, (yet not so simply,) to talk to each other. In some areas, I read this week, men “from enemy sides ventured into what they called “no man’s land” on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to mingle and exchange food and small gifts.” They also held joint burial ceremonies and prisoner exchanges. And many of the gatherings ended in carol singing… together… in several languages.
These are profoundly beautiful. And tonight, imagine it all not from a sentimental place, but imagine it from that place that helps you believe such things are possible. The soldiers also played games of football (i.e. soccer) with one another (and how long have I been telling you the potential there!?) in what one article called some of “the most memorable images of the truce.”
And maybe that’s it. Maybe that is the elusive, genuine, holy spirit of Christmas. And it comes in the most surprising unexpected, against all odds sorts of moments. It isn’t pretty or glamorous or wrapped nicely. In fact, it’s sort of gritty and terribly imperfect. But this whole story started in a stable where the entire family was away from home and their unexpected guests were complete strangers, some shepherds, some kings, and a heavenly host or two. And sheep.
Christmas happened, Christ happened in that least likely of places and moments, because God crossed the lines for us. And in that grace, the power of the dividing trenches was overcome. Of all the battles that God could have fought, that was the divine choice – to lay down all kinds of almighty-ness and in a different sort of fight to the death, to establish a way to be with, to be eternally, mercifully, and lovingly with.
And that’s it, isn’t it! That’s the elusive, genuine, holy spirit of Christmas. Salvation was revealed in the most vulnerable of ways and that’s how we will find it too, how it will find us too. It will find us on the battle grounds. In the living rooms. In the churches. In the schools. In our streets and neighborhoods. In ourselves and with strangers too.
And so if it’s the Christmas spirit you seek, consider the trenches – those inside of yourself and those out there in this world that God so loves. And then stubbornly, faithfully determine to bridge them. In the name of incarnation, cross over. And take a song with you as you go, or take a soccer ball, or some cookies. Cookies are always good.
In the spirit of Christmas, establish a way to be with. Let yourself grieve with those on “the other side” this season. Learn one of their carols which is probably yours too, just sung a little differently. And start by simply imagining that it is possible, believe that this kind of embrace is possible, and not only that, but it is of God. And so you will have some help as you go.
The good news tonight is that no man’s land has been crossed over, abolished even by a God for whom the trenches have no power. And through this holy grace, we, like the men of the Armistace, can talk. And we can play. We can embrace and we can sing, essentially sharing ourselves and in some ways giving each other back to each oter. Those are the gifts that we have to receive and the gifts which we have to give this season.
So come all ye faithful! This silent night, this holy night the angels hark, and there is joy for this world! There is joy to be had in this world. The Lord is come.