I don’t want to say that I am amazed how many people have forgotten the real meaning of Christmas, but instead, just to be different, to say the opposite. I am astonished each year just how many people do really understand.
You’ll know the First World War story about soldiers from opposing armies climbing out of their trenches and, famously, playing football in No Man’s Land. Why did they think that on 23rd December it was fine to shell the opposite trench and that on 27th December it was acceptable to machine gun someone in No Man’s Land, but that on 25th December it wasn’t fine at all? The only answer I can come up with is that there was something about the birth of what the prophets called the Prince of Peace which they understood. They might not have read the prophet who said that when God comes among us there will be an end to war, but instinctively they knew it was true. For one day the message that God has come among us was so powerful that they couldn’t do anything other than lay down their weapons and play games with their enemies.
There is an organisation originally called Crisis at Christmas which began a number of years ago in London by setting up a shelter for a few days where those living on the streets could have warmth and good food over Christmas. Why should the welfare of such people seem to be a problem it is too difficult to tackle in October, and a problem to expensive to fund in February, but somehow be something so many people want to do something about and pay towards at the end of December? There is something about the message of the holy child born in a stable because there was no room in the inn which instinctively makes many people really uncomfortable about the idea of others being homeless, and for one season of the year the message is briefly so powerful that they are willing to do something about it.
I don’t know whether you’ve heard in the last few weeks people say something about a difficult or lonely friend or neighbour or member of the family along the lines ‘we can’t leave him or her on their own at Christmas’. Why? We know the answer instinctively. There is something about the birth of the one who is going to say ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ and ‘do good to those who persecute you’ which is powerful enough on the edge of Christmas to provoke ourselves into being better people than we sometimes are.
I give thanks that the message is so powerful that something of the promised Prince of Peace, born in a stable, ready to teach us how to love God and each other, is effecting the lives of people up and down the country and across the world this mid-winter. The real puzzle is about grudging and over pious people like me who think we own this story. Why is it that the message of God among us, which is so powerful for a few days that it shapes so many people’s faith, lives, and relationship with God and with neighbours, doesn’t transform our lives much more comprehensively at this mid-winter festival and doesn’t deepen with the transforming presence of Christ alongside us day by day as the New Year lengthens?
The picture is one I took in St Nicolas’ churchyard before the morning service yesterday. The words are some old material I rehashed for an ecumenical service for the Willows estate in the closed St Peter’s Catholic Church in the afternoon.