Be Human – For God’s Sake

Christmas Eve 2014

It’s one of those peculiarities about the passage of time – that although, in my mind, this year seems to have sped by quicker than ever – it also feels an age since I sat happily working through my pile of summer reading.

Of all the books that I read, one thing that has stuck in my mind is Jeremy Paxman’s evocative description of the Christmas Truce of 1914 – in his book “Great Britain’s Great War”.

He describes the situation, 5 months into the First World War – with the armies stranded in their trenches, often only a few dozen yards apart, and an expectation that little would change until the following Spring.

Pope Benedict XV proposed that there should be a “Truce of God” to honour the feast of Christmas – but this faltered, partly because for the Russian Army Christmas would not be celebrated until 6th January. Senior British Officers were said to be relieved by this rejection and one General Sir Horrace Smith-Dorrien issued an order specifically banning “unofficial armistices and the exchange of tobacco or other comforts.” There was some confusion, then, in the British trenches when, on 23rd December, lights appeared on the horizon – until it became clear that German troops had erected Christmas Trees.

What followed seems to have been a series of uncoordinated and unpremeditated truces along the front. English soldiers heard strains of “Stille Nacht” and “O Tannenbaum” and responded with their own English songs – sacred and otherwise!

And so, on Christmas Eve, 100 years ago, soldiers from both sides agreed to rendezvous in no-man’s land and German cigars were exchanged for vegetable stew and Capstan cigarettes. Plum puddings were given for sauerkraut, biscuits for coffee, and yet more cigarettes for schnapps.

An extract from Paxman’s own description of that remarkable encounter:

Men who a day or so earlier would have liked nothing more than to put a bullet in the man beside them now stood showing off photographs of their families, girlfriends or children.

In some sections … there were even shared Christmas dinners. There are several accounts of junior officers also climbing out [of the trenches] to shake hands and exchange gifts with their German opposite numbers.

The weather had changed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day a sharp frost froze the mud and glazed the ground with white. The sky was clear and blue” ‘It was just the sort of day for peace to be declared”, thought one lieutenant in the Warwickshire Regiment, ‘but no, it was a nice, fine day – that was all.’

And, with a prearranged series of shots into the air

and the firing of a signal flare,

the peace ended and the killing resumed.”

So, in retrospect, it seems little had changed. The Christmas Truce was just a brief interlude in a long and bloody war. It would not be repeated in 1915 or the years which followed.

And yet, for some of those involved, their perspective certainly had changed.

The trenches opposite were no longer filled with faceless henchmen – but with fathers, younger brothers, sons – with young men just like themselves. And for a while, in places soldiers on both sides refused to fight those with whom they had chatted, shared food, played football.

As Paxman sums up:

There is nothing normal about living in a hole and trying to kill your neighbours. The Christmas Truce of 1914 had been proof of a more natural human instinct – a triumph of the human spirit over those brass hats who thought of soldiers as expendable automatons.”

A triumph of the human spirit – a rediscovery, perhaps, in that unreal situation of what it truly means to be human.

That same discovery, I suggest, is at the heart of the Christmas story – and one which is urgently needed in the far from peaceful world that we inhabit today.

Tonight, we recall the Word made flesh –

the unimaginable reality of God taking on and inhabiting our human nature. It’s a story we know so well – and yet one which is still to be fully worked out.

As we look around us, it’s easy to feel that – as with the Christmas Truce of 1914 – nothing’s really changed: Violence still trumps peace in the daily headlines. In this past year we’ve seen a worrying resurgence of nationalism – at home and abroad. Religious extremism and political corruption are as rampant as ever.

Faced with such a backdrop, it’s easy for us to want to retreat into a kind of Christmas haze – and put all that out of mind for a couple of days – to enjoy a kind of temporary truce with the world around us.

And yet, tonight we are called to do more than that.

We are challenged to comprehend the enormity of God’s willingness to become like us – we are challenged to reassess what it means to be human.

What is revealed to us tonight, and every Christmas, is that to be fully human is to be like God – that we, who are made in the image of God, share a common humanity that is remarkable.

And if our shared human existence now feels very far from being God-like or remarkable – then something is clearly wrong with the way in which we are living it.

So much suffering in our world seems to be caused by an inability, or perhaps an unwillingness, to recognise as fellow beings those who are different – whether by creed, appearance, culture or whatever barriers we chose to erect. The stories of abuse, of torture, of persecution, are surely only possible become some individuals decide that their lives are worth more than certain other peoples’.

Yet the Word made flesh came to embrace all humanity – and unless and until all of humanity is willing to do the same, the message of Christmas is unfulfilled.

None of us, individually, can make that happen – but we can begin, in small ways, to change perceptions – just as for many the experience of the 1914 truce did.

We can at least persist in asking the thorny questions:

As children of God – as brothers and sisters in a common human race – how should we shape international politics in the 21st century?

In our own country, how should we manage the effects of a shrinking public purse?

In our own communities – how will we deal with those who have messed up – and need a hand to start again?

How will we deal with those who are messed up – through self-abuse, or by the effects of other people’s actions?

How will we ensure that all people are able to live and die with proper human dignity?

None of these are easy questions to answer, but perhaps the legacy of the Christmas Truce of 1914 – and the purpose of our annual celebration of the birth of a child in Bethlehem is to make us question, to sharpen our thinking and to learn again how rich and precious this human existence is.

In a few days’ time – although there will be no signal flare – there will be clear indications that it is time to get back to normality – to leave the Christmas glow behind.

Let’s not be too ready to fall back, however, to where we were before:

let us pray that by entering once more into the mystery and wonder of Christmas our perceptions may be heightened and changed, and that we may enter the new year resolved that neither we, nor others, should live lives that are less than fully human.

Christ humbled himself to share our humanity, so that we might come to share his divine life.

May we go forward then, charged with his life and grace, to continue his work of redeeming love.

Rise and Shine

Advent Sunday 2014

On Monday of this week our Aldhelm Group were looking at the work of Isaac Newton – 17th century scientist and framer of the Laws of motion which held sway for the better part of 300 years: he it was who sat under the apple tree and was inspired to give the first explanation of the force of gravity.

What was less familiar to us, in Monday’s Aldhelm group, was Newton’s interest in Christian theology – and his keen interest in the “end times” – the second coming of Christ and the end of the universe as we know it. This, Newton considered might happen as early as the year 2060 – but not before.

The author of the material we were studying challenged us to consider why this topic is so rarely discussed today – either in church – or among Christians elsewhere. Why do we no longer see the men in sandwich boards urging us to repent because “the end is nigh”?

I commented that I think the Church is much more concerned with now with transforming life in the “here and now” or, as our own Mission statement put it, striving to “reveal God’s love in worship and action”. But that’s still only an observation – not an explanation of WHY we don’t talk much about what is clearly there in scripture and in words attributed to Christ himself. Might it be a general embarrassment that the end has not already come – when Christ seems to say it would happen within the first generation of the Church?

Is it a reaction against the kind of Victorian and 20th Century Christianity that treated faith very much as an escape from the harsh realities of the world?

With various thoughts and questions still swimming around in my head I came here to Morning Prayer on Wednesday only to hear the Reading from chapter 16 of Revelation – describing God purging the earth – and then the reflection which began – “The Wrath of God has rather fallen out of fashion as a topic of preaching in mainstream Western Christianity”.

Taking those two things together – I was left wondering whether we might just have lost some of the edge, some of the urgency that previous generations of Christians shared – and which still characterises the faith of persecuted Christians in Iraq or Syria or Sudan, for example.

Are most western Christians just too comfortable and complacent to worry about such things?

Today’s three readings all have something to add to this: [Isaiah 64: 1-9 – 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9 – Mark 13: 24-37]

The first from Isaiah mourns the absence of God – an absence seen as judgement on a wayward human race, and pleads that God will not remember our iniquity but will remember that he has made us and can re-make us.

The letter to the Corinthians assures it hearers that they have been given the “spiritual gifts while they wait for the revealing of Christ, and that He will strengthen them to the end”.

So God’s power will be revealed on the last day, but is already at work as we wait.

Then , in Mark’s gospel, there is no room for slacking – the end is described in dramatic terms and we are told twice to “keep awake” and, once, to “beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”

What I think all that adds up to is an even stronger sense of “duality” in our lives that I’ve spoken of recently – the need to live, fully engaged in the realities of this world, now: the realities of our own community and society and the realities of global tensions and inequality AND to live in the light and expectation of God’s promised kingdom.

Without that future sense of the perfection that God promises will be – it’s hard to find the strength to challenge what is wrong in the present world.

Without the realisation that God is already working through us – has already given us the necessary spiritual gifts – it’s easy to look at the problems of the world and assume he is absent.

So, at the beginning of Advent we’re quite literally given a wake-up call. To look for the signs of God’s activity here and now, so that we can better understand what can too easily seem just distant promises for the future.

As we journey together through Advent, can we really try to keep alert? – alert to the realities of each other’s lives, of the needs around us and to the opportunities that arise to share OUR vision of God’ presence.

There are 3 particular ways that I think we can work at doing that.

Firstly – the oft discussed issue of how we communicate with each other. I’m often dismayed when someone tells me they didn’t know about something they’ve missed –especially when I know I’ve produced a full page spread in the Parish news, included it on several weekly sheets and spoken about it from the front here!

Please do take at least to read the weekly sheet – including those things that may not seem to affect you directly. You may have no intention of ever attending a School Governors meeting, a Mothers’ union meeting or of volunteering to help sustain the Credit union – but you ought to be aware that other church members are doing those things and need your prayers to sustain them.

And if we are really going to communicate effectively – not only do I need to know that you know what’s going on, I also need you to be telling your neighbours who don’t get a weekly sheet.

So, please, be alert to what is going on and to others who might need to know.

Secondly, the question of needs – and the pastoral care that we offer. There is so much more that we could do – for the lonely housebound, for those who spend time in hospital, for those who’ve messed up and need a wise ear and a little guidance.

Are there people within this congregation, or people that you know, who have the time and the skills to train as an LPA – who might then spend time visiting people at home or in hospital? Or who might use those skills as volunteers in our schools or community groups?

Be alert to the gifts God has given you – and those around you – and see if we can’t do more than we currently manage.

And, thirdly, for ALL of us – that overriding need to be alert to every opportunity to engage other people in the reality of God’s presence among us. And that doesn’t need to be particularly high brow, or formal.

It can simply be inviting people to come and join in – as happened so successfully yesterday at our Christmas Fayre.

It can be actively celebrating our faith with other people – as we have opportunity to do at tomorrow’s Tree lighting ceremony. Or it can be just talking about our faith – offering something valuable from our own experience – being alert to when the right moment presents itself in the natural flow of conversation.

If we can all work on those things this Advent – then we might become more aware of each other, and how we can support one another, more aware of the needs of our neighbours, and how we might address them, and more aware of the God’s promptings – and how we might share those experiences.

The season of Advent is sometimes likened to the experience of Israelites that Moses led through the Red Sea into the wilderness – they know God has delivered them from captivity but now they’re not sure where to find him – they know that their freedom is won, but they have still not seen the promised land.

Like them, we know we already have much to be thankful for – but that if we press on there is a far greater prize to be won.

And so I’m going to end with an Advent prayer – that uses that same symbolism.

We thank you God for the wilderness – for our place.

As we wait for the land of promise,

Teach us new ways of living,

Lead us to where we hear your word most clearly,

Renew us and clear out the wastelands of our lives,

Prepare us for life in the awareness of Christ’s coming

When the desert will sing

And the wilderness will blossom as the rose.