The Germans called it the “Weihnachtsfrieden”; the French “La Trêve de Noël”; the English “the Christmas truce”.
A century ago, at Christmas 1914 and 1915, soldiers on the Western Front rather than shepherds, abiding in the mud and blood of the trenches rather than the fields, heard carols sung not by angels but by their enemies. One side sang Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht and the other The First Noël.
It became a kind of sing-off and each side clapped the other’s efforts. Then they started lobbing food into the opposing trenches. During brief unofficial truces soldiers climbed out to exchange seasonal greetings and souvenirs.
There were joint burial ceremonies, prisoner swaps, even football games in the ‘No man’s land’ between the lines.
The Anzacs had been evacuated from Anzac Cove by Christmas 1915 but they, too, had had their ‘Christmas truce’, a little early.
During an eight-hour ceasefire on the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians, Aussies and Turks met each other, conversed as best they could, exchanged drinks, cigarettes and gifts, and recovered their dead for burial.
These spontaneous outbreaks of peace – eventually stamped out by higher authorities – allowed the men to acknowledge their shared humanity, bravery and grief.
Exactly 50 years later, in the shadow of yet another world war, the Second Vatican Council came to a close. Its final document, Gaudium et Spes, began with the words: “The joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.” (GS 1)
The Council fathers were determined that, whatever our failings at times in the past, Christians must be a force for unity and peace in this time of rapid cultural, economic and social transformation.
Since then, a growing appreciation of our common humanity, dignity and rights, easy travel and communications, the spread of democracy and rise of international institutions, the globalisation of culture and development of previously poor economies, have all contributed to peace and goodwill. We now value diversity and deprecate discrimination towards those who are different.
We recognise that violence poisons human society, harms perpetrators as well as victims, and dishonours our Creator. And we appreciate that peace is an enterprise of justice and mercy, not merely the absence of war or an enforced calm. As the Vatican Council drew to its close, Paul VI made a plea at the United Nations Assembly: “No more war, war never again! It is peace, peace which must guide the destinies of peoples!”
Exactly one hundred years after the despair of the Anzac campaign and fifty after the optimism of the Council, we know it has often been three-steps-forward two-steps-back for humanity, and sometimes the other way around. We are if anything more confused about what to believe, value, hope for.
New technologies that should help people have all too often been used in ways that offend against human dignity or damage our common home the earth.
There is so much we could do to relieve disadvantage and promote harmony, yet so often there is indifference or worse. In Paris world leaders recently agreed on ways to protect our natural ecology; but only weeks before, that same city suffered a terrible attack upon the human ecology.
Which brings me to the Christmas story, for all of human experience is here. A child is born and so we reflect on that wonderful gift that is human life, and the gifts of family, friendship and community to which such life is entrusted.
There is leadership, commerce and work in the form of kings, an inn-keeper, a carpenter and shepherds. There is truth proclaimed by wise men and angels, and beauty in the starry night and that most beautiful of creatures, a new born baby.
There is faith, of course, as God enters into our history in a most remarkable way caroled by angels. Christmas invites our reflection upon everything good, everything that makes for human flourishing, everything worthy of our commitment and action.
But there is a darker side to the Christmas story, like all human stories. There is the poverty and exclusion of a couple that finds no room at the inn for the birth of their child and must flee to Egypt to escape persecution. As thousands of refugees from Syria and Iraq arrive in our country we might ask: will there be room in the inns of our hearts?
At the first Christmas wise rulers brought gifts to the baby King of Kings; but another potentate, Herod, brought only death to the little children.
As Christians and other minorities face terrible persecution in the Middle East and terrorists threaten whole cities and civilisations we wonder: can there be peace on earth and goodwill amongst people?
At the first Christmas there was a comet in the sky while poor shepherds with their flocks shivered in the fields, and ox and ass looked on, so that our resilient yet fragile natural ecology took part in the story too.
As we consider momentous questions about climate and the needs of the poor we wonder: can we reverence our natural environment while putting the human ecology first?
Christmas words like ‘joy’, ‘peace’ and ‘good will’ can sound naïve amidst the challenges of today, yet they are the deepest cries of the human heart at this very time. They are precisely what we most crave.
If there are many causes for concern, there is none for cynicism. Why? Today the Church sings “joins the triumph of the skies” in singing “Christ is born in Bethlehem… Christ by highest heav’n adored / Christ the everlasting Lord! [In Him we] the Godhead see; [in Him we] hail the Incarnate Deity.” Yet He is one of us now. He “lays His glory by”, comes “veiled in flesh… pleased as man with man to dwell”.
And He does not ignore the cries of humanity. No, He comes the carol will recall, “with healing in His wings”. In His total self-gift to His Father-God in love for humanity, Jesus took our sins away. So He was exalted, raised up, to new life, to the throne of God, making it possible for us to rise up too; to be more than we could ever be by our own efforts alone. He is “Born that man no more may die / Born to raise the sons of earth / Born to give them second birth.” With Him we can build a civilisation of life and love, a future without endless cycles of violence, terror and hate.
God-made-Baby sings to us: that human beings are made for greatness, for truth and beauty and goodness. In our weakness He comes to rescue, dispense mercy and refit us for greatness. Turn then to that Christmas Babe, so humble, so gentle, and relearn from Him habits of simplicity, contemplation and joyfulness.
Bring Him your best gifts: the gold of your talents and achievements; the frankincense of your prayers and aspirations; the myrrh of your sufferings and weaknesses. Be ready to receive back from Him so much more than you could give: new life, life eternal; joy to the world, amidst whatever hardships; a justice that dissolves ancient hatreds and recent conflicts; a mercy that declares a Christmas armistice now and forever.
The smile of the Babe of Bethlehem is happiness and hope for every anxious heart. And He smiles at you this day.
God bless you and your loved ones this Christmas!
This is an edited version of the homily written by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP for the Christmas Mass for the Indonesian Catholic Community on 26 December.