A number of people have been talking over the last few weeks about a football match a hundred years ago. The location was the trenches of the First World War. The match is supposed to have involved British and German troops who came out of their trenches as part of a Christmas Day cease-fire to kick a ball about. It is a wonderful story of hope in the darkness of war, but unfortunately there is some dispute about whether it actually happened, or on what scale. There is little evidence, just a few references in some letters home to England and nothing from the German side, and what there is is not as clear as it is often assumed to be.
One historian has suggested that what is likely is that there was a desire to bury the dead whose bodies lay where they fell in no-man’s land and it did not seem right to leave them like that at Christmas. So this desire to put it right gave courage and impetus to reach out to common humanity and risk being shot. From that one or two started to meet in the middle, in no-man’s land, and exchanged some form of greeting. A Christmas truce broke out with a ceasefire, though not everywhere and some were still killed. It’s a bit like the scene in the film War Horse, where the opposing armies come together to free a horse trapped in the barbed wire and the common effort makes a connection not possible when firing from trenches across a wasteland.
The tragedy here is that the next day the hostilities started again and as we know lasted for another three years. Jon Snow, the veteran journalist and broadcaster, said on Saturday that if there had been news cameras present at the time, he thinks the pictures would have led to such a public outcry that war would have been impossible afterwards. Peace would have been given such a powerful portrayal that no one would have been able to ignore it or carry on as before. I’m not so sure it’s that straightforward.
When people do meet, though. as people, find a common humanity through which to engage, differences start to reduce in size. They don’t disappear, but it becomes harder to demonise when you know the other’s interests and have shared a meal or a pint or a joke; when you’ve seen the picture they carry with them of their special person or cat. These kinds of meeting matter enormously but they don’t remove all differences entirely. They don’t suddenly make oppression disappear, challenge systemic injustice or structural inequalities, whatever the causes of the conflict might be. They don’t resolve competing visions or understandings which affect how we behave and act. These things require the meeting to deepen and conversations to emerge, negotiations and discussions to be rooted in the reality, to become relational at a much deeper level. For that we need words and understanding, we need listening and speaking through a common language and imagery, particularly if interpretation is also needed. But becoming conscious of our common humanity makes these conversations more likely and eases their way.
There was an interesting discussion on In our Time on Radio 4 a few weeks ago. An evolutionary biologist described language and communication as being about persuasion, and even manipulation. The aim of communication is to try to get the other to do something we want or to behave in a certain way. If it is to see something from a different point of view then the ultimate aim is to change behaviour in some way. It is no mere passing of the time of day but serves a purpose for survival and flourishing. Human beings are social beings, and words matter; they make a difference to social interaction. If that interaction is affectionate, then the words are part of bonding and nurturing affection. If the relationship is one where something is wanted from the other, then the words are an attempt, a way, of trying to entice that, to persuade or even force it out of them.
This is where the Christmas gospel, of ‘the Word becoming flesh’ (John 1:1-14), becomes profound and earthed at the same time. The concept that we translate as ‘Word’ is a deeply philosophical one from Greek and Hebrew thought. It is the very purpose and essence, the thoughts and understanding, the wisdom of the one who expresses it. Words convey profound meaning. The ‘Word’ at the beginning is the purpose and idea of God in creating. So to talk of ‘the Word being among us’ is to say that all of this was present in the mystery of the Christ-child. As ‘Word’ this is not just an idea, but an idea on a mission to persuade and affect behaviour, attitudes and allegiances. The Word among us aims to change us and inspire us, just as the Word at the beginning of creation caused change by bringing all into being, by bringing the plan and purpose to fruition.
When enfleshed this Word as idea on a mission is humanized, the language of social beings is adopted. The idea on a mission is present in a form we can relate to and to which we can respond. Like the meeting in no-man’s land it makes hearing the message more likely because it comes with human warmth and empathy. It calls, it shares, it empathises and it embraces. Blessing comes through touch, the mystery of the touch of heaven on earth. This is what John was conveying in his wonderful opening prologue to his gospel. The Word, the idea and purpose of God is present in a form that we can relate to in the person of Jesus Christ.
The last few days have been touched by tragedy. There was the murder, slaughter of children in Peshawar, leaving the world shocked and repulsed. There was the tragic accident in Glasgow with the deaths of 6 people when a rubbish lorry went out of control. And here, our cathedral community is in deep shock following the death of one of the young lay clerks yesterday morning in a cycling accident. This follows closely on the deaths of a number of others which have touched the community. These events sober the headiness of partying and take the shine off the celebrations, but they don’t cancel Christmas. The Word among us comes precisely to these situations. It brings a sense of purpose behind life and holding life in the thick of life. Even in the darkest moments the birth of the Christ-child comes holding and keeping hold of our life. When we lose our way or we are touched by evil or tragedy, we are called back by the word that speaks justice, freedom and life. When we cry we find we are not alone because the eternal is alongside.
The Word becoming flesh makes a difference. It is not remote and detached, but comes on a mission to connect and inspire, to hold and to keep hold of the life it gives. By being present it is able to communicate its message in a way it could not if it remained remote and distant, like the meetings in no-man’s land 100 years ago. As the origin of life it is also the goal and that is why the darkness cannot overcome it. Christmas brings a triumphant shout which has the last word, as it had the first.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Christmas Midnight 24th December 2014