Why does the birth of a baby 2,000 years ago in an unimportant corner of the Roman Empire still matter? Why do we still sing about it, why does the story of the birth of Jesus have such power that somehow we understand even the magic and joy of Santa Claus to come from a rickety feed-trough in a run-down farm shed in Bethlehem?
One of the carols we sang this evening even stopped a war. It was 1914, and the obscenely misnamed war to end all wars had only just begun. The night of Christmas Eve was cold and clear, turning the slush of the trenches into ice. As if by mutual understanding, the regular firing of snipers on both sides had fallen silent, when across the short gap of dangerous territory that separated them, the British troops heard the voices of the enemy singing - ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht’. As they listened and the snow began to fall the British troops on their side joined in with the English words, ‘Silent night, holy night’ – then one by one the first brave men climbed out of the trenches on both sides, enemies met as friends in the middle of the field of battle, gifts were exchanged and the next morning, on Christmas Day, a game of football was played. History doesn’t record who won – but does record that despite their best efforts the furious generals were unable to get World War One going again for a full fortnight.
It matters, because Christmas tells us that God longs for a world in which human beings speak the language of peace. At Christmas, God makes God’s self known to us not in power but in vulnerability – and so draws to us imperceptibly closer to our own better selves. At Christmas, we pause and remember who we really are, what really matters in our lives, in our community and our world. For a moment we forget to be competitive and self-protective, we become less hard-edged, more compassionate.
This year, the love-song of the angels echoes in the aftermath of Wednesday’s tragedy on Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean off the far north coast of our own State. It challenges us to reflect on the shared humanity that connects us with strangers who travelled so far only to perish on the rocky cliffs of their destination. It challenges us to reflect on what joins us to one another, and to re-commit ourselves to building a community in which men and women and children of all ethnicities and cultures, of all religions and of none, might live together with dignity and peace.