Midnight Mass - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Midnight Mass

In November this year, many of us marked the centenary of the Armistice, the end of the First World War.  And somewhat to my surprise, earlier this year, I received an invitation from Germany to preach in a church in Berlin on Remembrance Sunday, which happened to fall on the day of the centenary itself, to mark this significant anniversary.

From this developed the idea of us having a pulpit exchange - so the Lutheran Pastor from that Berlin church, Barbara Neubert, came and preached here in my place.  And it was a really profound and very moving experience for both of us.  And, I am delighted to see Patrick here this evening, because Patrick was in Berlin at the time, and came to hear me preach in Lichterfelde!

So why on earth am I referring to this on Christmas Eve?  Let me explain.  In one of my email exchanges with Barbara before our pulpit exchange, she sent me a remarkable document.  In a church where she had previously ministered, she had had an elderly congregation member who had ended up being a German prisoner of war in England at the end of the Second World War.  And he had told her a particular story about that experience, which moved her so profoundly that she asked him to write it down for her.  What I shall read to you in a moment is my own translation of what he wrote, so apologies if it sounds slightly clunky in places. 

There were large numbers of German Prisoners of War held in Britain between the start of the war in 1939, and the end of 1948 - and at its peak, which was around 1946 - the year of the story I am about to recount - there were as many as 400,000 of them here.  This is what he wrote:

On Christmas Eve, 1946, we went about our work as usual, as a bomb-removal detachment in the service of the British: Twelve of us, German prisoners of war, had been given the task of digging dud (or unexploded) German bombs out of the marshy ground on the railway line frm Newcastle to Edinburgh - rather like moles burrowing underground.

A few days earlier, an English clergyman had come to our camp and asked the English officer in charge of us if the Germans could be allowed to attend the Christmas service on December 25th at the local church. The clergyman wanted to show us a sign of reconciliation, because we were doing such dangerous work. We were young soldiers, all around 20 years of age, and we did not mind a welcome change.

On Christmas day we drove in our work truck to the church, with our hearts thumping. At the porch, the clergyman welcomed us in his white robe, and led us through the crowded church to two free-standing benches at the front. That was a bit embarrassing - we were in our German military clothes, which of course lacked sovereignty and rank insignia.  It was as quiet as a mouse. Then suddenly a booming organ sounded; a choir made a powerful and jubilant sound. I felt slightly dizzy because I had not heard such a sound for years. The fact that the congregation sang in English, of course, didn't matter, because the tune was known to all of us and familiar from our youth.

It was very emotional.  It got under our skin in a way that felt as if we had never celebrated Christmas before. One or two of our number pulled out their handkerchiefs. The nave resounded with the music: "daughter of Zion, rejoice". And it culminated with: "Silent night, holy night". By that stage none of us could sing along any more - we sat frozen to the spot with our hands folded.

And then came the thing that left us dumbstruck.  We went out of the church, accompanied by the clergyman.  And as we did the other people there stretched out their hands to us and joyfully called out "Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas" - again and again. And then, something we would never have dreamed possible: the English gave us small gifts - gifts for the twelve of us: a packet of cigarettes; a few coins; a piece of cake wrapped in Christmas paper or a bit of chocolate. We kept muttering in reply:  "Merry Christmas".

The officer of the British pioneers was already waiting for us in the warehouse - with a box of beer. He gave us an encouraging word, then we disappeared into our Nissen hut. We sat around our table for a long time that evening and felt: 'This is Christmas'.

What is it about Christmas that makes this kind of thing possible?  It's extraordinary, isn't it?  The hostilities between members of two nations that have been divided by a terrible and tragic and costly war, suddenly evaporated into warmth, and friendship, and hospitality, and generosity of heart.

The little incident that I have just recounted calls to mind the much more famous occasion in 1914, in the trenches of World War One, when Germans and the British held an unofficial truce, sang carols, exchanged gifts, and played football together. 

What is it about Christmas that makes such remarkable and completely unexpected things possible?

The world can be a pretty dark and bleak place at times - and particularly for those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, this is also the darkest and bleakest time of the year in a very literal sense.  But at Christmas, a festival embedded into the very heart of that darkness, we are given a glimpse of how very different life could be  - which, far from being fanciful and wishful thinking could not be more real - as the story I just read for you demonstrates.  Christmas makes things happen.

There is something about Christmas that can inspire the most ordinary of people - the most unexpected of people - to reach out to others in the most remarkable of ways.  To grasp the hand of an enemy; to contact a friend or family member with whom one has lost touch; to find oneself being generous, or gracious, or forgiving, in ways you would not normally even occur to one.

There is something profoundly affecting about the Christmas story - a story that is so extraordinary, and so compelling, and so outrageous, and so powerful that it subverts all of our assumptions, and overturns all our expectations, and makes us re-think everything we thought we ever knew about pretty well everything.

That the Saviour of the world would come to earth and dwell among us - not in might and power, but as a helpless newly-born child.  That he would be born in a filthy animal shed, in a country under military occupation, in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, conceived by an unmarried mother whose betrothed is not the father of her child - and for that to be the good news that the angels proclaim to all people. 

And because of that extraordinary divine gift to us, we in turn are invited to open our hearts to its transforming love and power; to become the people we were always intended to be, and called to be.  What?  And yet, look at just how much power that strange but familiar story can have.  It has the power to break down barriers, and dissolve hostilities; it can turn enemies into friends.  Astonishing.

Christmas gives us a glimpse of a world in which, thanks to the love and grace of God, things can be different - they really can.  A world in which we can be different kinds of people - we really can.  A world where peace can be a reality, not merely a worthy aspiration - it really can.

So the biggest challenge of all for us, is to ask ourselves how we can carry the extraordinary transforming power of the spirit of Christmas beyond the Christmas season, so that it becomes part of the fabric of our lives.

 In the words of one of our most famous carols;

O holy child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
Their great glad tidings tell.
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord, Emmanuel.

Merry Christmas!  Amen.

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