We all know the story, the old, old, deep story. A child, unknown, unplanned for, is delivered into the lives and the arms of the least suspecting parents. The child’s new parents travel great distances, to lands far, far, away, to settle with the child and to make a new home. They must flee their home because they receive news that a ruler—a madman—has heard that this baby might be born, so he sets out looking for the new-born baby, who would be a threat to the madman’s rule.
And these desperate parents are successful…for a time. The child lives out his destiny mostly in total obscurity until he receives the call, the inspiration, to involve himself in lifting up the oppressed against an unimaginably powerful regime. And in the end the child, grown into adulthood, travels across great distances, inspiring others to join his movement, his response to the suffering, his speaking of truth to power. And finally, this special, miracle child, succeeds in bringing about, through all the universe…the destruction of the Death Star.
Of course I have just recounted the plot of Star Wars, Episode IV, A New Hope. I apologize for any spoilers, but I think a movie that premiered nearly 40 years ago is fair game.
I tell this story because in a faith of embracing like ours, an a faith that encourages freedom and responsibility in our search for meaning, many of us have come to know the similarities between origin and birth stories, both ancient and contemporary. Star Wars was not the first to share themes with the story of the birth of Jesus, and it won’t be the last either.
Joseph Campbell, the noted mythologist, studied and wrote about human stories. His works, The Hero With 1000 Faces and The Hero’s Journey, are works that illuminate the attributes of stories that have captivated humans throughout history, from cave dwelling early members of our human family, right through human history to science fiction fans of today. George Lucas, the author and director of Star Wars, Episode IV credits his reading of Joseph Campbell’s work with the inspiration for the Star Wars universe and its heroes.
We know that stories are told and retold, repackaged, reused, and relived throughout time. But what is special about today, and what both our Christian ancestors as well as many of those among us believe, is that this day, this telling of the divine birth into human events is different. Today marks the day the world was being prepared for. All of the stories of divine children born to fulfill a divine purpose were preparing those earliest followers of Jesus to recognize Jesus when he arrived. This is the day we remember what theologians call the “inbreaking” of God. The Christ child, god in human form, shattered what was known of the universe when the child brought with him into the world the very presence of God.
The way we understand this day can change over time, over our lives. Maybe we were born into a faith of clear doctrine and theology, and then discovered we no longer held those beliefs. Maybe we were raised by people who didn’t put a lot of faith in this day, and we found our own meaning in it. Whatever the meaning is for us, one of the things sometimes said in celebrating this holiday is this: to have hope at Christmastime is to believe, at least in some measure, that the entire universe can be changed by an instant.
This is the good news of today.
We unite today in the hope of peace on earth and goodwill to all. But in a world where tides of conflict churn, it almost feels like a special kind of mockery to be asked to consider the possibility of universal peace. We wonder, and rightfully so, “If the peace of this morning is meant to unite us, why are so many of the stories that echo, that repeat the sounding of the story of Jesus, stories of profound conflict?” And we’re not only talking about science fiction like Star Wars. We are talking about real-world consequences of disagreements.
The many and vibrant ways that Christian thought and Christian practice look in the world, the way Christianity exists as it does in denominations, is due, in some part, to conflicts about what the birth celebrated today means in people’s lives. The life so many believe was meant to bring about peace, in the hands of its followers, has a sad and painful history of conflict and strife. But this day, Christmas, has figured in the conflicts on humankind in other ways, too.
Imagine a day of steady rainfall that in the evening ices and frosts. You are huddled with your friends, far away from home, trying to stay warm. The trench you are in, amid this bleak midwinter frost, was dug by you and your friends to protect you all from the rifle fire of your enemies. Four months ago in August of 1914, when war broke out across Europe, you signed up to defend your homeland. You were told the war would be over well before Christmas. But the horrors and realities of battle are sinking in, eroding whatever passion sent you there in the first place. And…it’s Christmas Eve.
You peer out into no-man’s land between you and your enemy, and you wonder if your eyes are deceiving you. Could you be seeing candlelight coming from the trenches of your enemy? Or could you really be seeing tiny fir trees, decorated for Christmas popping up on the edges of those same trenches? You receive the report, “Germans have illuminated their trenches, are singing songs and wishing us a Happy Xmas. Compliments are being exchanged but am nevertheless taking all military precautions.”
And then, as if out of the twinkling candles, you hear it: “Stille nacht, heilige nacht.” And as the song continues through the verse, you and those in the trenches with you wonder how to respond. And in the end you respond, in unison chorus, like this: “The first Noel, the angles did say….”
What has come to be known today as “The Christmas Truce of 1914” began in this way, with Christmas carol diplomacy. Private Frederick Heath, also described hearing this message coming from the German trenches: “English soldier, English soldier. A Merry Christmas, a Merry Christmas!” After these exchange, scouts from each side ventured cautiously into no-man’s land. The German soldiers were armed…with whiskey. The scouts carried back promises not to shoot at each other that night, and that was enough for the British troops to visit the German trenches for an evening of singing songs, sharing food, and laughing together in peace.
Private Heath recounted his experience like this: “How could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even though we might be at each other’s throats immediately afterwards? So we kept up a running conversation with the Germans, all the while our hands ready on our rifles. Blood and peace, enmity and fraternity—war’s most amazing paradox. The night wore on to dawn—a night made easier by songs from the German trenches, the pipings of piccolos and from our broad lines laughter and Christmas carols. Not a shot was fired.”
Not a shot was fired. Peace broke out that day on the battlefield. The young men were missing home. The soldiers were losing interest in what was becoming a much longer battle than they had ever expected. A moment of peace amid the tides of a war that raged huge and unfathomable. A momentous peace.
And this peace amid the snows of Southern Belgium was part of a long tradition of finding peace amid wars. Today begins the season of Hanukkah, which arose as a commemoration of one of the greatest military victories in Jewish history. On the first night of Hanukkah it is expected that we light the customary Shabbat candle as well as the first Hanukkah candle in the menorah. But Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher and Rabbi, chose the example of this night to consider a question: What about a family who could not afford two candles at the time of the first night of Hanukkah? Do they light the Shabbat candle or the Hanukkah candle?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that the likely first impulse would be to light the Hanukkah candle because it is a special occasion. But he reveals that Maimonides had a different view: “The Shabbat light,” says Maimonides, “takes priority because it symbolises shalom bayit, domestic peace. And great is peace because the entire Torah was given in order to make peace in the world.”
Rabbi Sacks agrees with Maimonides “because,” as he puts it “in Judaism the greatest military victory takes second place to peace in the home….Peace in the home mattered to our ancestors more than the greatest military victory. So as we celebrate Chanukah, spare a thought for the real victory, which was not military but spiritual. Jews were the people who valued marriage, the home, and peace between husband and wife, above the highest glory on the battlefield. In Judaism, the light of peace takes precedence over the light of war.”
It can feel at this time like we are locked in a battle, entrenched. But peace arrives at times like only a flicker of flame across a stretch of lonely battlefield.
It can feel at this time like our enemies, who don’t even know us, are surrounding us on all sides. But peace arrives at times like a choice between kindling the flame of the battle that rages outside or knowing the warm light of understanding we can bring with us into our homes.
It can feel, for a scared young mother, that she has nowhere safe to go with her baby on the way. But peace arrives into her arms, it breaks through time and space into being.