24 December 2014

When a Stable-Place Sufficed

Meditation for Christmas Eve 2014

In the bleak midwinter, 
frosty wind made moan;
earth stood hard as iron, 
water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow,…

So Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) wrote, around 1872, describing Christmas in England, and thinking of that first Christmas in Bethlehem, when “…in the bleak midwinter, a stable-place sufficed….”[1]

Hope is born in the most unlikely places.  This is one of the major claims we affirm tonight.  Hope is born in the most unlikely places when a stable sufficed for the throne of a boy born to rule the world with the scepter of love, born for a world that relentlessly tries to silence the cry of this baby.

In 1914, guns pounded the fields of France and Belgium with a ferocity and cruelty never witnessed before in the world. By Christmas of that year, the Great War was about five months old; it was supposed to be finished by then. It took almost four more Christmases before it would end, the so-called “War to End All Wars.” This year marks the 96th anniversary of the Armistice.

For almost 90 years, on Christmas Eve, Gordon McCrea pulled out an envelope brown with age and took out the letter inside (the paper was coming apart at the folds). It was written by his father to his mother and Gordon turned to it every Christmas Eve.

It’s dated 29th December 1914, Ypres, Flanders, Belgium. The rains that fall seemed to be endless, filling the trenches along each side of No Man’s Land. Despite bailing and pumping, the bottoms of the trenches were soup-like mud and knee-deep. “The misery and stench is beyond anything I could have imagined,” he wrote. Overwhelmed by the inhumanity he witnessed, he just wanted to be home that Christmas. But then he proceeded to tell what happened.

Starting on the 23rd December through the 25th, all along the front, from Verdun to Dunkirk, the British spotted lights at the tops of the German trenches. Then the Germans lifted up trees with candles on them and heard Fritz singing, “O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum…O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree.  The Brits thought it was a trap. So, they just listened as the Germans celebrated Christmas. “When their singing stopped,” McCrea’s father said, “several of us, accompanied by a harmonica, sang, ‘Away in a manger, no crib for a bed…’  Then cheers and applause came back from Fritz’s trenches.” On Christmas Eve at midnight, Gordon’s father writes, “we heard Fritz singing ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Alles schläft, sinsam wacht.” And the English joined back, “Silent Night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.”

“Then the miracle” occurred, as he explains it, “men without their rifles climbed out of our hell-holes and we met each other in no-man’s land, singing the same Christmas song in two languages. Cigarettes, chocolates, meerschaum pipes, pictures were shared…” Gradually, more and more men moved into No-Man’s Land between the trenches, an area full of devastation, decay, and death.  The Germans and English and Scots began to celebrate together. It was said that on Christmas Day they even played soccer together.

Word slowly leaked out to the press several days later, and through letters written home.  Both the German and the British High Command reprimanded the officers for allowing fraternizing with the enemy.  It never happened again in the course of the war.

The Princess Mary Tin (Photo: KEKovacs)
For that first Christmas the British Royal Family sent a gift to every soldier on the front.  They were known as Princess Mary Tins. It was actually the initiative of the 17-year-old daughter of King George V and Queen Mary.  Each tin contained a greeting card, some cigarettes, chocolate, pencil, and pad. I actually have one.  The lid reads: Christmas 1914.  My tin here is missing all of its contents. Nevertheless, it's almost a holy relic for me.  I like to imagine that whoever received this tin witnessed that Christmas Truce, one hundred years ago tonight.

The Christmas Truce was an anomaly in the war, but the very fact that it occurred places the entire war in sharp relief, especially when we remember that the overwhelming majority of the people in the warring nations—Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Austro-Hungary, & Russia (and later, the United States)—were Christian. Japan and the Ottoman Empire and India were, of course, non-Christian states, yet they were deeply influence by centuries of Christian thought and practice—Christians now ripping themselves to shreds. Each side had the equivalent saying: God is with us.[2]

Gordon’s father wrote, “I don’t know how long this ‘Peace on Earth’ will last, but it as if the angels thronged the air over Flanders, and grim earth, hard as iron, sufficed to house God’s Christ once again. Not just in churches and warm homes where lighted trees and presents await good children, but God declared that Flanders muck and stench would suffice.  And for four days the guns fells silent for 100 miles. All was calm, if not bright.”[3]

The good news of this night, my sisters and brothers in Christ, is that stable-places still suffice, whether it’s the stench and muck of a manger, the stench and muck of Flanders fields, or maybe the stench and muck of our lives, every place where the bleak midwinter tries to smother our joy, God’s Christ continues to be born there.  

On this Christmas Eve we gather on this corner in God’s Kingdom, surrounded by a world filled with people hungry for good news.  Many are just plain hungry and worried and afraid and scared.  The stock market might be at record highs and unemployment on the decline, yet anxiety still prevails in our polarized society.  People are tense, you can feel it, and it’s almost palpable. I can feel it and can see it. So many loved ones and friends are suffering from so many illnesses this Christmas, mourning the loss of loved ones, of friends, of broken marriages, missing their children.

The world can be so terribly dark, with the bleakest places are never very far away. It’s said that the night is darkest just before the first light of dawn. We are here to claim that in the darkness a new light emerges.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).  The light doesn’t remove the darkness. Instead, God’s light emerges from within the darkness and the darkness doesn’t have the power to overcome it.  This means that in the bleakest places, the darkest places, a new hope can be born. In a world of senseless violence, at the tip of Caesar’s spear, a different peace comes to us from Bethlehem. In every lonely, troubling place, in every absence and place of deepest ache there is a presence who fills every empty place with a peace and comfort and even joy that the deepest pain cannot take away.

For God will not be pushed out of life. God will not be silenced. God seeks to be born among us—with us—within us, no matter what or where. For in the bleakest places and times, the light of Christ continues to be born and born again and again; the light of Christ continues to shine and shines even in the darkness, and the darkness shall never, ever over come it – ever.  Ever!

[1] Christina Rossetti’s poem "In the Bleak Midwinter" (c.1872) was set to the tune CRANHAM, written by Gustav Holst (1874-1934) in 1906.
[2] On the theological dimension of the war see Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War:  How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (HarperCollins, 2014).   Also, Christopher Craig Brittain, “Religion in the Trenches of the Great War,” Religion at Ground Zero: Theological Responses to Times of Crisis (London:  Continuum, 2011), 39-61.  See also Kenneth E. Kovacs, “When ‘Christian’ Europe Went to War”.
[3] Letter cited throughout is found in Terry Schoener, “A Stable-Place Sufficed,” in Stories for Christmas Eve Telling (2008), 54-57. See also Stanley Weintraub, Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce (Plume, 2002).

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