The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
December 24, 2017
It is Christmas Eve, and here we are, together again, on this silent night, this holy night. Much has happened in our country, and in our world, since we gathered last year. Some things are hopeful, many are challenging, particularly for those who have always been vulnerable – the poor, the refugees, those marginalized because of their religion or race. The baby Jesus was each of these things, born this sacred evening into the brutal occupation of the Roman Empire. What his young parents wanted for themselves on that first Christmas was safety, was respect, was shelter, was a future – a future in which their new son could live, not with wealth, but with simple dignity.
I suspect that the things that each of us truly wants for Christmas are not on those lists that we emailed to our relatives. My email list included a particular book, and a few more forks in my silver pattern. I am already living quite well without these things – I was trying to help those who asked for gift-giving help, because they’re going to give me something anyway, because it makes them happy to give me something for Christmas because they love me. And I am just as grateful for the lists that they give me, because I love them, and so it gives me great joy to give them something, too. Christmas is many things, and one of them is an opportunity to “love on” the people we love, and we do that with the grateful reminder of how blessed we are just to have them in our lives.
We have several lists, don’t we, of what we want for Christmas? One we share with our relatives, and one we share with God. Those latter items are the things that can never be wrapped up, can never go under a tree. They’re the things that we really, really want, and that we ask for in our prayers. Many amongst us here tonight, I know, want for Christmas most of all health – health for ourselves, health for a loved one. We and or they are fighting disease, or a degenerative condition, or an injury. I will be truly glad to receive forks from my good husband, but I really want restoration for Victor, a member of Princeton’s class of 2015, who suffered a massive injury to his spine last month while serving with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, and who is now paralyzed. I want health for a friend with metastatic colon cancer, and for another in remission from ovarian cancer. We all have our lists.
Some of us have been asking God for a great love, one that will fill our hearts with joy and provide an anchor, it seems, at last, to the connectedness of the human family. Some of us have been asking for a wonderful new professional opportunity, something that takes our passions and skills to a new level and gives us new life. Some of us want college acceptances. Some of us really, really want healing from trauma, want release, want freedom to live into a new fullness. Some of us want hope, want to wake each morning with the spark of belief that our yesterdays and todays do not have to be our tomorrow. Some of us want to be free of addictions and compulsions – within ourselves or those we love. Some of us want a baby. Some of us, like Mary and Joseph, want a future, for ourselves and our children, one that needn’t be soaked in privilege but that would be founded on respect, integrity, fairness, equality, justice. All of these things are gifts we can never find as we gather around the tree, but rather around the manger.
One of the things that many of us want, this and every Christmas, is peace: peace between armies, across communities, within families, inside minds and spirits. Many people have spoken to me in recent months of their fear of even nuclear war in these times, and of feelings of dangerous instability in any number of circumstances and relationships. But tonight is born among us the Prince of Peace. He is tiny, vulnerable, and cold, and likewise the peace that he brings is one that wins not through the might of tanks or missiles but of vulnerable hearts transformed. The answer to all our warring madness truly is born this evening, but we need to believe that this is true in order to effect his peace.
Later in this service, we will sing “Silent Night,” and we will lift our candles, and we will dare to let our hearts soar with hope in the brilliance of all that light. Perhaps you know the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914, when maybe upwards of 100,000 soldiers along the front in World War I put down their weapons and celebrated Christmas with their enemies. The most powerful of these stories comes from the written testimonies of those British soldiers who describe hearing “Silent Night” wafting across no-man’s land, sung in German by troops who were only a hundred (or so) feet away, maybe less, the trenches being so close to one another. It was Christmas Eve, cold and wet, so many men having enlisted for a grand, trouncing adventure that they were sure would be over soon and have them home for Christmas, yet here they were, in misery, maybe not sure what they were at war about, and far from home. “Stille nacht, heilige nacht.” The British peeped over the top of their trenches and saw tiny, lit Christmas trees to go with the singing. They sang along - “Silent Night” in English, then more of their own English hymns.
They heard a voice call out in English, “Hallo, English Soldiers! Merry Christmas! Where are your Christmas trees?” (Some of the German soldiers had attended university in Britain before the war and their English was fluent.) Then a lone German officer appeared, unarmed, above their trench, inviting them to come out and celebrate Christmas with them. And they went.
They sang together. They prayed together. They buried the bodies lying there in no-man’s land – together - both the English dead and the German. They said prayers together over the graves of members of each army. When light dawned on December 25th, they used biscuit tins as soccer balls and enjoyed thrilling matches. Some, who were barbers in civilian life, gave haircuts to the enemy (life in the trenches was awful and uncompromising for everyone; they’d gotten shaggy). And when Christmas was over, they shook hands, returned to their trenches, and picked up their guns. When commanding officers returned to the scene, having heard of the fraternizing with the enemy, they were quite displeased. On the English side, at least (the side whose records have been available to me) came the order to shoot and bomb furiously now that Christmas was over. Unable to defy orders, at least one British soldier decided that he would shoot, certainly – he would shoot at the stars, and not at his fellow human beings in the facing trench. Of that Christmas truce, one British soldier wrote, “The supreme craving of humanity, the irresistible, spontaneous impulse born of a common faith and a common fear, fully triumphed.”
It was a common faith indeed, and it inspired 24 hours of beautiful peace, which was the soldiers’ real wish for this Christmas before the demands of a warring world snuffed it out. One French officer, elsewhere on the front lines, wrote of the “unfortunate consequences” when people “become familiar with their neighbors opposite.” I would counter that familiarity with neighbors creates the recognition of a shared humanity whose authorship is God, and that our embrace of this shared humanity brings us the peace that we truly want for Christmas, then and now.
My husband knows a man who, in his early teens, was bullied, humiliated, denigrated. Into that vulnerable state, the one group that reached out to him were white supremacists, and this young white man joined them. But he couldn’t stay with them too long, because the people whom he was instructed to hate refused to hate him back. Love does trump hate, as we read throughout the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This Christmas Eve, we have our lists of presents – the ones we give to our family and friends, the ones we lift up in prayer to our God, and also the list of gifts we receive this evening from God. Tonight is born unto us the very Prince of Peace. Tonight is the birth of the hope of the world. Tonight is born the love that will not let us go. Tonight is born the very agent of our salvation. You didn’t ask for these things for Christmas, perhaps? Like me, you went with forks? Let us receive God’s gifts gratefully, for they are the source of all that we really want – love, hope, future, faith, fulfillment, meaning, purpose, peace. If I haven’t just mentioned exactly what’s on your family or your God list, I’ve mentioned its foundation.
This Christmas Eve, and always, we may choose, like those soldiers 103 years ago, to live out of the gifts of faith, the gifts of God, before all other things. We may be Christmas People, not simply on this silent night, this holy night, but even every day and night, even when we cannot hear the angels singing. If what we truly want is found not under the tree but around the manger; if our solidarity is with the baby Jesus in every wretched or lovely place in which he is born tonight; if we will practice his love, his inclusion, hospitality, respect, and truthfulness, we will be Christmas People always, and we will thus be the fulfillment ourselves of the Christmas wish list of even God and Christ: for humble disciples, willing and ready, to transform this beautiful, tragic world through simple acts of love and faith. “Stille nacht, heilige nacht”: those verses are always filtering through the air somewhere, if we will hear them.
Sermon School Year