Bishop’s Christmas Sermon 2014
25th December 2014
St Albans Cathedral: discomfort and joy
The full text appears further down the page.
Addressing one of the most familiar of Christmas messages: “peace and goodwill to all,” the Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Revd Dr Alan Smith said, in his Christmas sermon, that politicians and soldiers cannot bring peace to the world. It was not in any way a criticism of them; his point was that peace is brought when ordinary men and women step into a vulnerable and uncomfortable place to reach out in peace to others.
At the end of a year in which England has re-familiarised itself with the events of 1914-1918, the Bishop drew on one of the increasingly famous moments of the early war: the Christmas truce, even the inspiration this year of a commercial Christmas video.
He pointed to the courage of the soldiers who stuck their heads above the parapets, risking death and who lived the true message of Christmas. If we are to understand this true meaning of Christmas, we need to understand the context of Christ’s birth in a country “occupied by foreign (Roman) forces, where people are oppressed and where he (Christ) comes to bring peace founded in justice.”
The Bishop explained this context and concluded, “so much of our celebration of Christmas sanitises these insights.”
And he advocated a little discomfort, redolent of the strife around the first Christmas, as a vital ingredient in the making of Christmas peace. Anyone who has helped to serve Christmas lunches to the homeless, for example, will readily identify with the peace and joy that this little it of discomfort brings.
The soldiers’ actions “brought peace for a few hours,” but, the Bishop observed, “It (peace) did not come from the politicians who were safely back in Blighty tucked up with their families in the warm, with their turkey lunch. Peace did not come from the generals: they certainly didn’t order a ceasefire.
“No, it came because ordinary soldiers, “recalling the events of Christmas, put down their weapons and ventured into no-mans land.”
Perhaps addressing the kind of modern Christmas celebration where Christ’s birth can be a distant shadow rather than a clear beacon, the Bishop asserted: “Peace will come when ordinary men and women like you and me, dare to climb out the trenches that we have dug to protect ourselves, the trenches of fear, of greed, of hatred. Can we show similar courage to that of the First World War soldiers who stuck their heads above the parapets?”
He went on to connect the story of the Christmas truce directly with making peace in today’s troubled world:
“True peace will come when we dare to clamber out into the vulnerability of the open space, into no man’s land, where we are not in control and where we feel naked and vulnerable.
“True peace will come when we dare to meet those of whom we have been afraid and to hold out the hand of friendship. Let us pray that in this coming year we may live out the angels’ proclamation: Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace!”
The text of the full sermon:
Christmas sermon in St Albans Abbey, 25 December 2014, 0945
Isaiah 9: 2-7; Luke 2: 1-14
A hundred years ago this very day, at the beginning of the First World War, a strange event took place along the Western front. Some ten weeks earlier the British and German troops had begun digging 450 miles of trenches, about 50 meters apart, and already 3627 British Officers and 86237 privates had been slaughtered.
But on that first Christmas Day of the First World War the guns stopped firing and an eerie silence broke out. This is how it was described in The Hertfordshire Mercury, dated the 9th January 2015 which reported the experiences of Rifleman C H Brazier who came from Bishops Stortford and who was serving in the Queen’s Westminsters:
“You will no doubt be surprised to hear that we spent our Christmas in the trenches after all and that Christmas Day was a very happy one. On Christmas Eve the Germans entrenched opposite us began calling out to us ‘Cigarettes’, ‘Pudding’, ‘A Happy Christmas’ and ‘English – means good’, so two of our fellows climbed over the parapet of the trench and went towards the German trenches. Half-way they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir. All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us and one played ‘God Save the King’ on a mouth organ”
Similar truces took place at many different points along the Western Front as the soldiers simply chose to climb out of the trenches and meet the enemy who a few hours earlier had been so determined to shoot them. Many of the soldiers shook hands and exchanged gifts and for a short period that Christmas there was indeed ‘peace on earth’ as the angels had foretold.
The events of Christmas have always had an ambiguous meaning – just as they did on that first Christmas over 2000 years ago. Today’s gospel reading reminds us that the great Roman Empire which stretched from Lisbon in the West to the Gulf of Oman in the East, from Hadrian’s Wall in the North to Egypt in the South was governed by Octavius. It was he who took the name Augustus and is the only Roman Emperor mentioned in the New Testament – his name was read out in today’s gospel reading.
Augustus was an important figure in world history, as is illustrated by the fact that the month of August is named after him. And if we are going to understand the full meaning and subtlety of today’s gospel reading, then we need to turn to the proclamations that we made about Augustus across the Roman Empire.This is how the Priene inscription, dated around the year 9BC describes the Emperor Augustus:
Since Providence, [which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life,] has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue [that he might benefit humankind,] sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things… and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him…(Craig Evans, ‘Mark’s Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription’: from ‘Jewish Gospel to Greco-Roman Gospel’, Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 1 , 67-81).
What is so extraordinary is that the language used to describe Augustus and his achievements in this and in similar proclamations. He was feted as the ‘son of God’ and as a ‘saviour’. When his victories were proclaimed they were ‘good news’ or in the Greek ‘euangelion’, because he was the one who brought peace, the pax romana.
Notice that these are very same four words or phrases which are used in today’s gospel but which refer not to Augustus but to Jesus.
So what Luke is telling us is ‘You know the Emperor Augustus who claims to be the son of god, a saviour who comes with the gospel of peace. Well, let me tell you the real euangelion, the real gospel of great joy for all the people: ‘to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord…And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace!’
Everything is turned upside down. Much to everyone’s astonishment it’s not Augustus who is the real son of God, the saviour who bring good news of peace – no, it’s Jesus. And the proclamation is made not in the public forum in front of the Roman citizens but to the shepherds on the hill sides, who were the social outcasts. And as the narrative unfolds Simeon and Anna proclaim that this child, Jesus, is the one who will become the saviour of God’s people, not Augustus or for that matter, any earthly ruler, especially those who govern by the sword and with violence.
Now so much of our celebration of Christmas has sanitized these insights. Take popular carols, such as ‘While shepherds watched their flocks by night’ or ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ which give us a romaticised, privatised interpretation of Christmas, which, though I love them too, have no little bearing on the world in all its pain and suffering. These carols give us a piety which is only about feeling an inner sense of peace. Now there is nothing wrong with feeling inner peace. It’s just that here in Luke chapter 2 the events are profoundly political. This is the Christ who is born into a country which has been occupied by foreign forces, where its people are oppressed and where he comes to bring peace founded in justice.
And so let’s return to where we started: that cold Christmas day in 1914 where peace broke for a few hours. It did not come from the politicians who were safely back in Blightly tucked up with their families in the warm with their turkey lunch. Peace did not come from the generals – they certainly didn’t order a cease fire. No, it came because ordinary soldiers, recalling the events of Christmas, put down their weapons and dared to venture out into no man’s land.
If we are going to find true peace in our world today, it will not come primarily through the politicians and certainly not through the soldiers who may keep the peace, but cannot alone establish it.
Peace will come when ordinary men and women like you and me, dare to climb out the trenches that we have dug to protect ourselves, the trenches of fear, of greed, of hatred. Can we show similar courage to that of the First World War soldiers who stuck their heads above the parapets?
True peace will come when we dare to clamber out into the vulnerability of the open space, into no man’s land, where we are not in control and where we feel naked and vulnerable.
True peace will come when we dare to meet those of whom we have been afraid and to hold out the hand of friendship. Let us pray that in this coming year we may live out the angels’ proclamation: Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace!
+Alan St Albans