24 December 2007

Thoughts on Christmas

Ypres, Belgium. This little town in Europe probably doesn't hold much meaning to us today, at least not that we know, anyway. Those who are more familiar with The Great War will recognize it as the scene of intense trench warfare and massive numbers of casualties. Throughout the course of the war, the fighting raged through the area and town of Ypres, not once, not twice, but three times. The last of these battles, more commonly known as the Battle of Passchendaele, raged through the area from mid-July 1917 until November 6, 1917. Over seven hundred thousand men were wounded or killed.

Ypres also shares the horrible honor of having been the first battle to see mustard gas, which was also called Yperite for a time.

But at Christmas time of 1914, Ypres was the site of a story so beautiful, so compelling, that it still now stands as a story that celebrates the true Christmas, the Real Christmas.

We Christians get our Christmas story usually from Luke. The writer of Luke, whomever he was, was well spoken, intelligent, and well educated. His account of the life and times of Jesus and the early church shows a keen eye for detail, and a respect for history, as well as absolute reverence for his subject matter.

In Chapter two, he relates the nativity story as he knows it. In verse 14, he has the shepherds watching in awe as a great company of angels and other heavenly hosts give a choir concert for them.

"Glory to God in the highest! And on earth, peace to those on whom God's favor rests!"

The phrase is familiar to us, probably a bit too familiar. I mean, what is Glory? What does it mean to give glory to God? Glory is one of those words that everyone knows what they mean by it, but nobody really knows what it means.

So, let's figure this out!

The Hebrew word that we translate as Glory is Kavod. The word means "significance, weightiness. Honor and majesty are other words that compare.

When the psalmist says that the heavens declare the Glory of God(Psalm 19), the word used is Kavod. In the Book of Exodus, when Moses asks to see God, God replies that "the best I can do without absolutely destroying you is to show you where I just was." (33:17) (Wingnut paraphrase). In other words, God tells Moses that humans can't handle the full presence of God without being totally and completely reduced to our elemental parts.

Pastor Rob jokes that then Jack Nicholson came along and said to Moses, "You can't handle the Kavod!"

So when we look up at the stars in the night sky, we are filled with awe and wonder. We begin to contemplate how absolutely massive the universe is, and how massive God must be. We also begin to realize how small and insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. We are realizing the kavod, the weight, the significance of God. The heavens are telling us how big God is. And we stand and marvel at it. My backyard is dark. On a clear night, I can see millions and millions of stars. I can see the Milky Way, the constellations, and I can't help but feel tiny. I could stand out there for hours, shivering in the dark, just staring at the sky. I let my mind become a starship, and wonder how long it would take to travel to all these beautiful and wonderful places that I see, and knowing that I could live forever, and still not see them all.

It must have been similar to what Moses felt, seeing where God just was.

But even that wonder, that awe, that totally consuming excitement of the vastness of the universe isn't God. It's merely a small glimpse of His presence.

This idea is reinforced in Psalm 8, where it says that God has set His glory above the heavens.

So now we go back to Luke. The writer is writing in Greek, and trying to find a word that carries the same idea as kavod in the Greek language. The word chosen is doxa. In Greek, the word means the unchanging essence of something. Something's doxa is the way that something is. When we picture, for instance, a couch, we get a certain doxa about it.

When the angels sing doxologies to the shepherds, they are singing about the very essence of God. They are singing that God is too big to understand, but He sent all his power down into this little baby to redeem His creation. That is the power of Christmas: A huge God that cares so much about the universe He created, that he sent His power to live among it.

Now we go back to Ypers( pronounced "Eeper", by the way)

It is December of 1914. The war has been going on since summer, and has already descended into the chaos of trench warfare. The ground is deeply scarred by shell holes and trench systems. It is cold now, and the high water table has filled many trenches with water that now freezes at night. The trench systems are only about 200 yards away from each other, separated by the hellish moonscape of no-man's land. Machine guns and accurate rifles make being above the ground at all deadly.

In the middle of this hell, the German soldiers at the front begin decorating their trench and the surrounding trees for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, the sound of their Christmas carols rises above no-man's land. The British who are facing them in their own trenches, respond by singing out the same songs in English. It is cold and clear out, and as the frost forms, the two armies shout out Christmas greetings to one another.

As Christmas Day dawns, the greetings continue, along with calls for a gift exchange. A few brave soldiers on both sides actually leave their trenches and walk through no-man's land! Groups of British and German soldiers meet in the middle of no-man's land and exchange gifts, small jars of jams and chocolate from their rations, or cigars and whiskey from their personal stashes. They show off pictures of their families, and trade pieces of their uniforms.

The artillery does not fire on them, and so they continue. Fallen soldiers are properly buried, with the honor of having both armies present at their funerals. At one funeral in particular, the gathered soldiers recite Psalm 23 together.

Some of the soldiers start a game of soccer in no-man's land. Apparently, the German team won, 3-2.

It is very important to remember that this was not ordered by higher authorities. The generals on each side were not a part of it, and in fact, the French and British generals took active measures to stop the truce, and to ensure that it did not happen again. This was totally unofficial, absolutely spontaneous. In some areas, the truce remained in effect until New Year's Day.

What kind of power does this day have over all others, that soldiers are willing to leave the relative saftey of their fortifications, and enter into the hell of no-man's land, literally walking into the unknown, to exchange gifts with men who are trying to kill them?

What kind of power makes people who don't even believe in God still believe in the spirit of Christmas?

What kind of power rests, in this day, that makes it endure like no other holiday?

Could it be that Christ's birth was so monumental, so loving, so absolutely awe-inspiring, that our celebration of it still bears the significance of this event and will for all eternity?

Could it be that God's kavod rests so heavily on this day, on this time of year, that we cannot escape it?

My Christmas wish is that the Glory of God, the kavod of the Almighty, will rest upon you and your family. That you will find the kavod of God, brought down to earth, is still present, still alive, still redeeming His Creation.


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