One of the most vivid scenes I see every Christmas, along with carolers around a Christmas tree and shepherds around a manger, happens in the greeting area in airports. There you see men, women, and children of every age, shape, and color, with head scarves and wrap around robes, blue jeans and T-shirts, elegant jackets and slacks—all meeting up with one another at last.
When one person comes out of the gate and sees the one who’s waiting, both faces light up. They embrace and kiss, and you can almost see the words on their lips—“You’re here! Oh, it’s so good to see you! I’ve missed you! I’m so glad you’re home!”
The yearning runs deep in us—this primal need to be with those we love. It’s not enough just to know in our minds that the person we care about loves us, or is safe and happy. We need to touch, to connect.
That’s what this Christmas night is all about, this deep yearning we humans feel, to be connected to each other, and to God. We’re all nomads these days. We aren’t sure where home is. But we know it has something to do with the ones we love, and something to do with feeling that we belong, that there’s a place for us in this universe, that God is somehow close. “Our hearts are restless till they rest in You,” St. Augustine once said to God. Home is where love is, where God is.
Tonight I want to tell you about a Christmas Eve when Christ’s birth made all the difference. It was December 1914, and the Great War, which we call World War I, was still young, but already the soldiers had spent miserable months in rat-infested trenches along the Western Front. On one side were the English, French, and Belgians, and on the other the Germans. Between the two sides was No Man’s Land, a devastated landscape of dirt and barbed wire. The trenches were so close that the two sides could often scream insults at each other. But as Christmas drew near, something remarkable began to happen.
It started with impromptu cease-fires here and there along the lines, allowing each side to go out to collect their wounded and dead. But then things shifted dramatically when German soldiers lit candles on their beloved Tannenbaum—Christmas trees brought to the trenches to celebrate the season. The English, who often viewed the Germans as sub-human, saw them risking their lives to set up these trees.
The English raised signs saying, “You no fight. We no fight,” or just, “Merry Christmas.” Some Germans started singing, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,” and when the British heard it a few started singing back “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Then the Germans sang, “O Tannenbaum,” and the British answered with “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” At six o’clock on Christmas Eve, all the shooting stopped. There wasn’t a sound.
Soldiers on both sides began to come up out of their trenches, and started to greet each other. They exchanged gifts, whatever they had—cigarettes, tins containing candies and tobacco. On Christmas Day they played soccer in the shell-pocked No Man’s Land. They traded addresses and promised to stay in touch. There are photographs of German and English soldiers, who were supposed to be killing each other, smiling together into the camera. There, along the lines, those soldiers discovered connection and belonging across the deepest divides imaginable.
One U.S. newspaper called this amazing Christmas “the Wonderful Day.” Peace had broken out in the midst of war, because both sides knew the story of the Child of Peace who came to bring healing to the world.
As Christmas Day came to an end, though, the truce began to fade. There were several reports that when the soldiers were ordered to start shooting again, many of them aimed harmlessly high overhead, and one regiment actually mutinied, saying, “We can’t [shoot]—they are good fellows, and we just can’t.”
Soon the war was on again. But for a time, the soldiers actually experienced the power of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. And when they did they followed its call to touch, to connect with those other members of the human family. A light shined into the world’s darkness, and there, for a day, people received it.
The story we tell tonight is simple. A young Jewish couple travels for days to Bethlehem, just outside Jerusalem, obeying the orders of the Roman emperor Augustus. Like the Middle East today, and like the time of the First World War, they too face conflict and foreign occupations. The young woman is about to give birth to a child, but when they arrive in Bethlehem there is no place for them in the inn. So she delivers her child in the stable, and her husband wraps him to keep him safe and warm and puts him in a feeding trough, a manger.
It’s the story of a God who loves this world so much that he enters our history to bring us a new possibility of peace and healing. Here in the manger tonight we see our world’s hope—a Love at the heart of the universe that comes into our lives not just once, but again and again, to heal our wounds and fears and selfishness, to draw us back together.
This love of the child of Bethlehem can be easily ignored, but it in fact unleashed a movement of hope and peace that still is at work across the globe. That’s what draws us here today, and that’s why a billion people tonight and tomorrow will do just what we’re doing, singing carols and songs of their own, as they tell the story again.
God’s strategy is to win over the human race one by one. Unfortunately, there is no more efficient way to do it. And so God seeks you out tonight, and me, to say, “Won’t you accept this Love I bring today, trust it, let it shape your life? Won’t you accept the peace I came to give?”
We humans yearn for peace and connection, but we find ourselves in a world where nations, cities, families, even churches are divided. We gather today in the shadow of a confusing, heartbreaking war, and in a world where children in Darfur and Mozambique face the ravages of AIDS, malaria, and random killing.
Today God is seeking to be born in our nation and our world, in your life and mine. Will we allow Christ’s Spirit of love to grow in us? Will we seek to reach beyond the trenches facing each other in Palestine and Israel, in Iraq, in cities and neighborhoods and families? Will we reach across the globe to ease the suffering in Africa? This Child of Bethlehem seeks to pull us out of our trenches to embrace each other.
One cold night in Flanders, the Child of Bethlehem brought hope and healing, even if only for a few hours. May his Spirit not rest until we, all of us, know that we are one.
A Scottish poet who was there in the trenches that day wrote a poem that ended with these words:
O ye who read this truthful rime
From Flanders, kneel and say,
God speed the time when every day
Shall be as Christmas Day.
That’s the prayer I offer for today:
God speed the time when every day
Shall be as Christmas Day.