On Christmas Eve, 1914, as darkness fell over the trenches of the Western Front during the First World War, a German soldier began to sing a Christmas carol and soon he was joined by others. Then, slowly, those on the Allied side also began to sing, until one or two soldiers found the courage to get out of the trenches and go towards the other side exchanging Christmas greetings. This was the famous “Christmas unofficial truce” and it lasted for the whole of Christmas Day. During this time both sides helped each other recover and bury their dead and they also exchanged gifts, with one group even engaging in a friendly football match in the “no man’s land” between the two opposing trenches. This period of peace did not last long and soon the Army High Command on both sides began ordering their men to cease fraternising with the enemy and begin once more to try to kill them. That short day of peace and brotherhood, however, remains a historical fact and shows how the Gospel of Christ is able to bring peace and friendship even into the most unlikely of places – albeit for only a short time. It thus gives to us all a glimpse of the power of the Gospel of Christ, if only it is given the chance.
I have seen that same power at work here in East Malaysia. When I say Mass I look out at the congregation and see it is made up of people from many different races, communities and ages. I see people, who once would have considered each other as enemies, now regard each other as family, and while we still have a long way to go as family, we can see, even now, what Christ is doing among us – making us family. Of all our Christian Feasts, maybe Christmas is the one that brings us to see this most clearly – particularly in the warmth with which we greet and smile at each other. In this way, our Christian customs and traditions can sometimes reveal the Gospel more clearly than can doctrine!
I have a small tin Christmas crib, which was given me some years ago by a Mexican friend of mine, and last week, I took it out of its wrappings and set it up. It is very small, and now rather rusty, but it still tells the story. When I had erected it, I just sat and looked at it and as I gazed I saw how everyone in the scene were bringing gifts to the Christ Child – what a contrast to the secular picture of Father Christmas, who is welcomed because he brings gifts – although there is a custom in some places to leave a glass of milk and a biscuit for him.
As I sat there, I saw that to come before the Christ Child, I need to bring something and, I saw, that I need not be ashamed of my gift, whatever it is – if I have gold, that is acceptable, as was the gift of Balthazar, one of the kings; but, if I have only a bit of bread and cheese, as probably brought the shepherds did, that also is acceptable. Standing before the Child, who had nothing, I need not be ashamed of who I am – or am not – and if I dare to stand there as I am I will receive what the Christmas song says the little drummer boy received – “he smiled at me!” Christ smiles at me, not because of what I bring, not because of what I can do, but because I am who I am – and in that smile I know that I am of infinite value, as are all those others around me.
The Christ Child smiled that Christmas Eve one hundred years ago this month and the soldiers looked across the trenches at each other and no longer saw what the enemy were, but who they were – people just like themselves – and they went out to greet each other as friends. That is did not last long, does not matter. What is important is that it did happen – and the smiles of Christmas tell us that it will happen again, until one day there will be no more men of vested interest to demand that we start killing each other again.
“Glory to God in the Highest and peace to people of good will”
The College is quiet! The peace of Christmas hangs over all, for the students have gone home and soon, tomorrow morning, I shall be going to Bali for a week. I was ticking off last night the work I needed to take with me – but, in the middle of my evening shower, I thought, “No! I am going on holiday! The work can wait till I come back!” And so it shall.
I have just been visited by some friends from the days when I was a young priest in Mukah. One of them was a dental nurse and her presence today brought to mind the time when we had a small group of Catholic nurses who used to meet together. One of them “took a shine to me” as the saying goes, and kept turning up at the Fathers’ House, when I was there by myself, with a chicken tied to her handlebars – insisting that she wanted to cook it for me so that we could eat it together. I ran! Fortunately, a week later, she was transferred – but that was not my doing. As we chatted, I recalled that story and the friends said that I should record all those stories in a book. Maybe!
Having got eight young men, who have expressed a wish to become Mill Hill Missionaries, I now have to find a way to train them. Amazingly, the smile of the Christ Child happened and people began to ask if they could help contribute towards their studies, so I am starting up a “Mill Hill Family” group to help join us in our missionary work.
God bless and Happy Christmas,