I realised last week that in the busy tiredness of the Christmas rush, I never posted my Midnight Mass sermon, nor did I print out copies to put in the church. Several people have asked to see it, so here it is. I’ve back-dated it so it shows up on the blog at roughly the right time chronologically.
One hundred years ago, in trenches all along the front, soldiers laid down their weapons in an unofficial truce. We commemorated that remarkable event at our Carol service here on Sunday evening. Men exchanged gifts instead of gunfire, sang hymns instead of battle cries, and shared festive food and drink instead of fear. You will no doubt have seen the Christmas Truce featured in television advertisements over the past weeks, but despite the sentimentalising of a very real event, few of us can appreciate how much this respite from fighting must have meant for soldiers wearied by war. It was a courageous offering of peace, a silent, holy night replacing endless days echoing with sounds of shelling.
Here in this silent, holy night, we hold candles in poignant hope that that temporary Christmas ceasefire of a hundred years ago may become an everlasting peace, that swords may once and for all be beaten into ploughshares, that captives will be freed, that those who weep through the night may awaken with joy.
We know all too well that that day has not yet come. Wars continue, sadly many of them consequences of that ‘war to end all wars’. On this night when we celebrate the birth of Christ, parents in Pakistan will be mourning the loss of their children killed while at school, and parents in Nigeria will continue to worry about the fate of their girls, still missing after being kidnapped in April. Refugees will, like Mary and Joseph, spend the night in temporary accommodation, unsure of when they will return home, or whether there will be a home to return to.
And here in our country as well, grief hides in the darkness. After the tragic crash in Glasgow, Christmas will now be a reminder for some of what will never be. And, with child poverty on the increase, on a day which is known for feasting, tomorrow, hundreds of children will go without food. Over 900,000 people have used food banks in the last year according the the Trussell Trust. And we each bring with us our own sadnesses and regrets and losses that always seem to weigh a little heavier at this time of year.
In this silent, holy night, the world with all its burdens trudges on, hungry for another Christmas truce. Hungry for peace and justice. Hungry for the embrace of a loved one. Just hungry.
But in the dark, silent, holy night, a baby cries out in Bethlehem.
Just over a month ago, I began Advent in Bethlehem in the dark. I was with a small group from the Scottish Churches visiting humanitarian organisations and advocacy groups as part of an ecumenical partnership trip. At 4.30 in the morning on the first Sunday of Advent, we stood at Bethlehem Checkpoint 300 amid the hundreds of Palestinian workers queuing to travel through to jobs in Jerusalem and beyond.
We bought coffee from a man who told us he arrives at 2am every morning. Stalls of food lined the pavements. And a group of Muslim men prayed beneath the looming 24ft separation wall.
We watched Advent dawn through the olive trees, and for an hour and twenty minutes, we stood in the jostling, shoving, desperate crowd, at times, so close to those around us we could feel their hearts beating. I looked into eyes which held no hope. Saw lines of worry etched into ancient faces. And witnessed shoulders sinking under the weight of exhaustion as we trudged through the concrete corridor towards the security gate.
I couldn’t help but think of Mary and Joseph on their Christmas journey down from Nazareth to this ‘little town of Bethlehem’. And how much the ‘hopes and fears of all the years’ still rest upon upon it today. How much the world still hungers for the coming of the Prince of Peace and the Christmas Truce of his reign.
And as I speak here, that coffee seller will no doubt be setting up his stall, in this dark, silent, holy night, preparing to provide food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, and companionship for weary workers on their journey.
Will a baby’s cry be heard there tonight, in that little town of Bethlehem, that little town whose name means ‘House of Bread’?
Will a cry come from the child lying in a manger, the feeding place for animals?
Will a cry come from that tiny, helpless little boy who shares our hunger?
The prophet Isaiah proclaims great news on this silent, holy night:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light.
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
And if we had not heard the words so many times before, if we did not assume we knew what was coming next, we might think that a Great King, a Mighty Soldier, a Powerful Leader was marching over the horizon, his magnificent frame lit by the moon, bringing with him peace through force, and amongst his enemies, fear.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light.
For a child has been born for us.
God comes unarmed. . . . No weapons of mass destruction. No guns. No knives.
In a city under foreign rule, to a people living in fear of a jealous king, God comes as an offering of peace and love even more surprising, even more defenceless, even more vulnerable than those Christmas Truce soldiers crossing No Man’s Land to share together one silent, holy night before again picking up arms.
God comes as child. Born in the ‘House of Bread’, laid in a feeding trough. God comes as a child who will one day preach from a mountain: ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled’. Who will one day say to his disciples: ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never thirst’.
In night, God comes armed only with love, the light of poignant hope breaking through the darkness, a child’s cries shattering the silence, hunger made holy. God comes this night: Hungry for peace and justice. Hungry for the embrace of a loved one. Just hungry.