Dec 22, 2012

Christmas - A great light!

"A savior has been born to you who is Christ the Lord" 

Is 9: 1-6
Titus 2: 11-14
Lk 2: 1-14

There is a well-known Christmas story told from the time of the First World War. As the first Christmas of World War I approached, Pope Benedict XV on Dec. 7, 1914, asked the leaders of all warring governments to agree to an official cease-fire. He begged "that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang."

Not surprisingly, his plea was ignored by government leaders. But many of the soldiers on the front lines declared their own unofficial truce.

On Christmas Eve of 1914, German troops in Belgium, put candles around their trenches and sang Christmas carols. When opposing British troops heard the Germans singing, they responded with Christmas caroling of their own.

The sound of gun-fire and destruction throughout the region fell silent.

Then a remarkable scene occurred. German and British soldiers climbed out of their trenches and ventured unarmed into the highly dangerous no man's land to exchange gifts of food and drink, as well as souvenir hats and buttons.

The truce also allowed opposing sides to retrieve their dead and participate in joint services.

A firsthand account of this inspiring Christmas truce was given by Bruce Bairnsfather, who fought with a British machine gun unit. He wrote: "I wouldn't have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. ... I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. ... I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange."

Reportedly as many as 100,000 British and German troops along much of the Western Front -- a line of trenches stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier with France -- stopped fighting and engaged in similar acts of human kindness.

But as is often the case, the "leaders" got in the way. High-ranking officers ordered all such truces to stop and to start killing again.

(Source: National Catholic Reporter: Tony Magliano)

Once again, Christmas is upon us and we hear the story of Bethlehem, the manger, a virgin Mother and a new born child. We know of a courageous and just man by the name of Joseph who is key to completing the image of the Holy Family. We can tell the story of the shepherds and magi by heart.  Singing angels who proclaim the birth of a new born King and the German lullaby “Silent Night” is embedded in our Christmas experience. But the constant pursuit of peace on earth, despite the heroic story of the famed Christmas truce, remains seemingly far away.

While we may tire of the rush, frenetic shopping sprees, the unspoken competition as to which house has more lights or who makes the best egg nog, in the end Christmas remains fresh every time we hear the familiar story of the birth of Jesus Christ. In its stark simplicity, there is hidden a great mystery that will forever live alive and fresh each year in December. So, maybe we need to reflect more on what the story implies than on the all familiar details of its scene. The Christmas truce between fighting soldiers, for example, shows us peace is possible and preferred for those who of their own volition, lay aside weapons of war.  

In our Scripture readings for the traditional Mass at Night celebrated by ancient tradition somewhere around the turn of the midnight, we hear Isaiah the prophet proclaim: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light . . . (Is 9: 1). Darkness here refers both to lack of knowledge and understanding but also to the darkness of sin.

With the birth of this child, a new age begins.  A new light enters the world as never before and a new hope dawns for all humankind.  But, we must choose to embrace that new light and that new hope.  God offered the world a “Christmas” gift in the mystery of the Incarnation (God made flesh) but we must decide whether we want that gift or not and if so what we must do about it. So, God proposes a new way of life for those willing to respond.

Very recently our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI offered an Op-ed piece in, of all places, the Financial Times. This highly unusual move by a secular magazine which offers business and financial advice to those in such a field wouldn’t normally open their pages to the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church!

However, they apparently did and Pope Benedict asks Christians to reassess their Christmas priorities.  By doing so, he clearly implies the new way by which God reveals himself to us in Christ and what it means for our daily lives.

Among what the Pope writes: “Christians shouldn’t shun the world; they should engage with it . . .” The vast majority of us do not live as hermits or in silent Monasteries but rather, particularly the laity, are involved in the daily push and pull of human life. Myself as Parish Priest is likewise called out from my office or home to engage the culture around us with a higher set of values; a better way to live based on God’s law as revealed to us.

The Pope goes on pointedly: “Christians fight poverty out of recognition of the supreme dignity of every human being . . . Christians work for more equitable sharing of the earth’s resources out of a belief that, as stewards of God’s creation, we have a duty to care for the weakest and most vulnerable. Christians oppose greed and exploitation out of a conviction that generosity and selfless love, as taught and lived by Jesus of Nazareth, are the way that leads to fullness of life. Christian belief in the transcendent destiny of every human being gives urgency to the task of promoting peace and justice for all.”

The birth of the Son of God and Son of Mary among us came historically at a time of great peace. Luke reminds us of Caesar Augustus during whose time found the vast Roman Empire in a period of peace. Angels call all humanity to see this child as the central figure of history.  And from him, as shepherds and Magi symbolize, all humankind from all cultures and races, will be offered a new Gospel – good news.

Pope Benedict XVI offers us concrete ways in which we can live out this Gospel: fight poverty, share more equitably, oppose greed and exploitation, and defend human life in all its stages. 

As we gather around Word and Sacrament at Holy Mass this Christmastime, let’s reflect, rejoice, and embrace this new good news of the Savior that is both ancient and new. 

Our work is cut out for us indeed.  But if warring troops can lay aside guns, light candles, sing carols and face each other peacefully on the battle field, how can we do anything less?