A sermon offered by the Reverend Suzanne Grimmett | 25 December 2020
St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly
“Christmas is,” said G.K Chesterton, “as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected, and seen a light from within. It is as if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into good.”
There is a defiance about Christmas, that doesn’t say all things are as they should be in the world, but rather that things are not, but we will find good anyway. We will hope anyway. We will rejoice anyway.
Surely this is the year when we are acutely aware of the suffering of our fellow human beings across the globe; perhaps acutely aware of our own struggles in health, in employment, in relationships. A year where it is going to take more than a few carols, some tinsel and a shopping spree or two to find those Christmassy feelings. The problem is, that love, joy and peace don’t come conveniently gift-wrapped for us to receive. Part of the reason I think so many people experience acute distress at Christmas time is that this day is over-loaded with expectation to have this kind of spirit visited upon us from on high.
Of course this is exactly what did happen to those shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night. By all accounts, the lot of a shepherd in 1st Century Palestine was not an enviable one; tough conditions, long hours, low status and barely enough to live on. And yet it is to this group that joy literally does break on high with multitudes of angels – this good news of great joy is for all people and assuredly for these shepherds who become Divine messengers, telling Mary and Joseph all they had seen and heard and anyone on their journey home they found who would listen. They have witnessed heaven breaking through- first amongst the stars, but then in the face of a child placed humbly in an animal’s feeding trough. That these men witness in the one night the divinity that could paint with angelic glory across the heavens but also be present in a squalling human child in the straw must surely have shaken them. The transcendence AND the immanence of God in the space of hours. It must surely opened that door to the inner room of their hearts so that they could see the light from within their own humanity ‘that would betray them into good.’
I wonder what happened to those shepherds? Did they live long enough to hear about Jesus in the brief time where he lit the world with his grace and healing? If they lived that long then they would have also seen times of social upheaval and oppression under empire, of inequality and insurrection. The angels’ promise of a saviour and the wish of peace on earth must have seemed like a distant and unrealistic dream. Yet I wonder if those shepherds were so changed by what they saw that night of heavenly epiphanies and divine earthly incursion that they were able to keep open that door to their heart in spite of every indication that heaven had not arrived. Did that night birth in them such hope that even amongst the reality of the continuance of an oppressive regime, of poverty and social exclusion, these shepherds held defiantly to their witness that heaven had indeed arrived and God was amongst them?
What does it look like to hope anyway? What would it have meant to the shepherds to live into that knowledge that heaven had already arrived? What would it mean to us? Could it be that those who commit to living Christmas all the year have found a way to keep that doorway open so that the light within that most sacred room in their hearts can suffuse all of their lives; from the traumatic to the joyful to the mundane? Could Christmas actually be just as much at home in places of violence or grief or suffering as it is in the carol singing, tinsel-bedecked, happy family feasts?
Most of us would know the story of Christmas Eve 1914 where British and German soldiers facing off across no man’s land began singing carols, before others climbed out of the trenches, exchanging gifts of food or cigarettes and even playing football. One British major said, “If it had been left to us, there would never have been another shot fired.” It is hard to hate up close, and the soldiers had allowed Christmas to betray them into seeing the humanity of one another. Unfortunately, those making decisions about the deployment of armed forces were sitting at a greater distance from their enemy and not infected by the kindness breaking out amongst troops of both sides that night.
Less well known is the story of a Christmas intervention for peace in Colombia. In 2009, a bloodthirsty guerrilla war had been going for more than 50 years, had seen terrible atrocities on all sides and had claimed some 220,000 lives. The Colombian army had realised by this time that the war could not be won by brute force and needed a campaign to encourage the FARC guerrilla army, many of them youthful, to go home. In consultation with an advertising agency, the decision is made to ignore the ideology and focus on the humanity of the young soldiers, and Operation Christmas is born. Special forces teams, under cover of darkness, penetrate into the jungle haven of the FARC and dropped two thousand strands of motion detecting Christmas lights on to the trees. Whenever members of the FARC army would approach, the trees would light up with twinkling lights and a banner reading;
If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home. Demobilise. At Christmas, everything is possible.
Within a single month, hundreds of the guerrillas had returned home. This was followed the next Christmas by Operation River of Light where Colombians were asked to write to their missing family member who had joined the rebel army with a simple message; “Come home, we’re waiting for you.” These letters, along with small gifts, were tucked inside 6, 823 floating Christmas baubles which were then dropped into the rivers used as the main highway by the guerrilla army. At night, the decorations lit up and twinkled as they glided down the river. Again, hundreds returned. The following year saw Operation Bethlehem, where, after learning that many of the young fighters became lost in the jungle and couldn’t find their way home, thousands of beacons were dropped by helicopters so that rebels could find their way out of the jungle just like the shepherds following the star to Bethlehem.
Christmas belongs everywhere, but its hope shines more brightly in the darkest places of our stories and our lives. The experience of the Christ child being born anew in our world can arrive as the utter surprise of a Christmas tree in the jungle, a bauble laden with messages of love floating down the river, or a beacon to light the way home. But we can just as suddenly see that heaven is amongst us through acts of kindness, moments of unexpected forgiveness and the inbreaking of love where it had seemed a lonely world.
Christmas changes everything. Christ comes to us, opening the door of our hearts to the light within, just as the world seems most dark and the way full of struggle. Christmas arrives; born to a young peasant girl, amazing lowly shepherds doing it tough on a cold night, visiting the horrors of trench warfare, lighting up the jungles where guerrilla troops hide, proclaiming hope to a world in the grip of a pandemic, and thankfully, prising open the door of our own hearts to surprise us with joy. May the light shining from that inner room find us all this Christmas, betraying us into good.
 Details of these events drawn from Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History, (Bloomsbury Publishing, UK, 2020) 367-376