Tidings of Great Joy

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 their 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 in the end, 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 forty years ago is fair game.

That was a little bit of a dirty trick, so I apologize. But I tell this story because in a faith of embracing like ours, in a faith that encourages freedom and responsibility in our search for meaning, many of us know of similarities between the origin and birth stories, both ancient and contemporary, across time and across cultures.

Star Wars was not the first story 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 how stories captivate humans throughout history, from the earliest cave-dwelling 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 all its heroes and its memorable villains.

We know that stories are told and retold, repackaged, reused, and relived throughout time. Our Christian ancestors and many of those among us know that, too. But one of the very beautiful beliefs of a Christian life is that the telling of the divine birth of Jesus…is different from all the narratives before and all the narratives after that sound the same. For many Christian members of our human family, 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. It was as if those other stories were preparing the world while it waited in slumber.

And whatever the meaning is for us, one of the things sometimes said in celebrating many of the holidays of this time of year: to have hope at this time of year, the time of miracles, the time when the earth tilts again on its axis, favoring the sun once more, is to believe, is to place some hope in the idea, no matter how small, that the entire universe can be changed…in an instant.

But in our world we know too well, it can feel like a special kind of mockery to consider the possibility of this kind of change. And we wonder about the Christian hope for peace on earth and goodwill to all…and that such a change could arrive in an instant, we wonder, and rightfully so, “If we are supposed to wait patiently for peace, why are so many of the stories that echo, that repeat the sounds 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 was hoped for because of the birth of Jesus. Indeed, the life of Jesus, which so many believe was meant to bring about peace, in the hands of its followers, has had a sad and painful history of conflict and strife. It’s that very history that has led many around the world, and perhaps many of us here, to depart from many of the beliefs of that faith. And we are not alone.

Our own ancestors in our Unitarian and our Universalist traditions were excommunicated, ejected, and otherwise drummed out of the Christian faiths of their families until the Unitarians had their own churches and the Universalists had their own churches. Conflict over these questions is in our own spiritual DNA. But 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.

And that’s when 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.”[1] And then, as if out from the twinkling candles, you hear it:

“Stille nacht, heilige nacht.”

And as the song continues through the verse, you and those in the trenches 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 exchanges, 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.”[2]

Not a shot was fired. Peace broke out that day on the battlefield. The young men were missing home. The soldiers, losing interest in what was becoming a much longer battle than they had ever expected, came together. 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 conflict. Even the very walls here that shield us from the outside were part of this long tradition. Broken from their families’ faiths, the Unitarian Church and the Universalist Church, lay as splinter groups, victims of the fractious fate that many religions hold for dissenters, until 1961, when the two groups merged officially to begin the new project of seeking an identity less from what makes us different, and more for what brings us together.

The story of Universalists and Unitarians coming together was not the first story of joining of its kind. There were some stories of reconciliations and reunions in other faiths among the more common narrative of difference and division, but for us, this was the story of reunion, of coming together that mattered. For it was in the following year, exactly fifty-five years ago today, Christmas Eve 1962, when the very first service was offered in this building, when this church entered its new home to begin its life of faith lived freely, lived in peace, lived together. And the life of this community was changed forever…in an instant.

Those are the glad tiding of these times. The good news. The tides don’t always shift in an instant. It might take instant, after instant, after instant. So we must be insistent. As Unitarian Universalists, as Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Jhainists, Wiccans, and more, as humans, in the instants when we come together, when we meet heart-to-heart, mind-to-mind, and yes, even body-to-body, what we honor, what we live out in our lives, is perhaps the deepest truth of life. For in those instants we know the truth that we are bound together with all of creation, interconnected, united as one.

The tidings of great joy in our lives don’t always arrive as miraculous truces kindled across battle lines in the frozen snow.

Tidings of great joy don’t always arrive as the fateful and faithful joining of two kindred flames under one roof more than five decades ago.

Tidings of great joy don’t even always arrive when a scrappy band of rebels gives a bloated, looming, paranoid, force of evil in the world what it had coming.

But these are all instants that reflect that first glad tiding of great joy, when what unites every soul on this planet came to pass, when then flame of life flared forth into this world for each one of us at our own birth. And the universe was changed…in an instant.

[1] Mike Dash, “World War I: A Hundred Years Later,” The Smithsonian, December 23, 2011 (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-story-of-the-wwi-christmas-truce-11972213/).

[2] Dash, The Smithsonian.

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