One hundred years ago tonight saw something quite extraordinary happen. There was an unofficial Christmas truce along the front line in World War I. Such truces have happened before, but this one arose spontaneously in different parts of the line. Sometimes it began with soldiers in the British trenches listening spell-bound as they heard the men they had been trying to kill sing recognizable Christmas carols. At other times it began with homemade ‘You no fight, We no fight’ placards raised above ground level. In some sections of the line, British soldiers were confused by the appearance of lights in the German trenches, until they realised that their enemies had erected Christmas trees. By all accounts this truce was a German initiative. But slowly and gingerly men climbed out of their trenches, greeted their enemy and wished them a merry Christmas. Some exchanged tobacco and drink, others played football and it was an opportunity to bury fallen comrades and both sides helped each other bury their dead. An amazing, temporary outbreak of peace centred around a celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace. As we heard the angels in the gospel, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those of goodwill.’ For just a few hours, the soldiers experienced the peace brought by Jesus Christ.
Tonight, in Erbil, northern Iraq, thousands of Iraqi refugees, chased out of their homes by ISIS jihadists, will be sheltering in their tents under a cold middle-eastern sky. They may, for the moment, be protected from the killing spree of ISIS, but they now have to contend with plummeting temperatures. They left their homes only with what they could carry. One of the tents contains one of the most beautiful nativity scenes (scenes which portray the birth of Jesus Christ) we are likely to see, it is beautiful because these refugees believed it was important to carry the nativity figures with them. So why would today’s refugees in Iraq, forced to leave their homes with so few possessions, living in drafty tents and facing the prospect of falling temperatures, build a nativity scene? Canon Andrew White, Vicar of Baghdad, helps us understand. He tells of some visitors coming to Baghdad to discover what it was like for Christians in Iraq. The visitors were surprised by the happiness and vitality they found among the Christians: they asked how they could be so happy when surrounded by suicide bombers, rockets and violence. One young person answered, ‘You see when you have lost everything, Jesus Christ is all you have left.’
When the Iraqi refugees look upon the nativity scene, they will see in Jesus a fellow refugee who, like them, had to flee with Mary and Joseph from his home in fear of their lives, leaving everything behind. When today’s refugees look upon that nativity scene, they will also be given hope. I have been to Israel and Palestine on a many occasions and I have asked Palestinians trapped in the West Bank whether they see a political way through the difficulties in which they find themselves. They shake their heads and say ‘No.’ But they quickly follow it up by saying, ‘But we have hope.’ One said that he was ‘bristling with hope.’ Hope, sometimes against all the odds, often when there appears to be no way out, can be armour-piercing, because hope is one thing that the enemy cannot destroy. In our first reading, Isaiah brings words of hope to the ancient people of Israel. They were unclear about their future, but they are being given hope. The enemy can take away many things, our home, our possessions, our health and even our lives, but the enemy does not have control over our hope.
The message of tonight is peace and hope. So how does that fit into our lives? We are all here tonight because, at some level within us, we want to touch base with God…..maybe to renew or check out our relationship with God. And I am sure that God is delighted to see us all because he wants to relate to us all. As we gaze on the Christ-child, the Prince of Peace, we are challenged to ask ourselves two questions. First, is there somewhere in our lives, perhaps among the people we know or work with where we can bring peace – like the soldiers 100 years ago, are we willing to climb out of our trenches, even though it may be slowly and gingerly?
Secondly, as we gaze on the Christ-child, the bringer of hope, as we look to the future, do we do so with hope or fear? Looking with hope to the future does not ultimately depend upon our possessions, nor even upon our feelings, but it depends upon our relationships. The Iraqi refugees who have fled with nothing and have no idea as to how the future will pan out, look at the Christ-child with hope. They know that hope is not knowing and predicting the future, but rather it is trusting that, whatever happens, there will be a future and it will be in God’s hands. Hope is at the heart of the Christian faith and at the heart of our celebrations tonight?
I hope and pray that, wherever you are and however you are, this Christmas may overflow with peace and hope.
Preached at: Eynsford, 24 December 2014
Readings: Isaiah 9.2-7;Luke 2.1-20
Image 1: Re-enactors Peter Knight and Stefan Langheinrich, descendants of Great War veterans, shake hands at the 2008 unveiling of a memorial to the 1914 Christmas Truce. Author: Alan Cleaver
Image 2: Refugee tents at Arbat Transit Camp for Syrian Refugees in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan taken by C. McCauley