A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Christmas Eve • December 24, 2020
One of my favorite Christmas time songs isn’t a Christmas carol at all; it’s a Hanukkah carol called Light One Candle by Peter, Paul and Mary. I love it because lighting candles is so much a part of my Christmas memories and traditions. A menorah is lit during Hanukkah; in the Advent season, we light four candles, candles that remind us to prepare with hope, peace, joy and love.
The song says,
Light one candle for the strength that we needPeter Paul & Mary, Light One Candle
To never become our own foe
And light one candle for those who are suffering
Pain we learned so long ago
Light one candle for all we believe in
That anger not teaser us apart
And light one candle to find us together
With peace as the song in our hearts.
What is the song in your heart this evening?
There’s a funny video on YouTube that imagines Satan using a dating service and matching with a woman named “2020”. Satan says, “I filtered out joy, happiness, toilet paper and reason.” 2020 happily points to herself and says, “Boom!” The video is comic; the time has been tragic.
We have been in a war against a virus. In the background has been the shelling and lightning of a political war as well. But we are not the only ones to come to Christmas in a time of war. So I thought tonight we should hear the story of the 1914 Christmas truce. That year found German, Belgian, French and British troops exhausted and dug in on a series of trenches that ran from the Channel to the Swiss border. Battles through the fall had shocked everyone with their violence. It was the first time 20th century technology was brought to the business of killing and it was very, very effective.
Yet as Christmas came to the trenches, the terrible, mud filled trenches, where just to let your head be above ground could result in death, a silence came over the battlefield in many places. Captain Robert Miles of the Royal Irish Rifles said ,
We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable. A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front. The funny thing is it only seems to exist in this part of the battle line – on our right and left we can all hear them firing away as cheerfully as ever. The thing started last night – a bitter cold night, with white frost – soon after dusk when the Germans started shouting ‘Merry Christmas, Englishmen’ to us. Of course our fellows shouted back and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches, unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man’s land between the lines. Here the agreement – all on their own – came to be made that we should not fire at each other until after midnight tonight. The men were all fraternizing in the middle (we naturally did not allow them too close to our line) and swapped cigarettes and lies in the utmost good fellowship. Not a shot was fired all night.
There are many such stories from many places. All begin the same: a few cautious, hopeful souls, lifting their heads, calling out, then soldiers quietly coming together between the lines, often exchanging something: buttons, a bit of tobacco or coffee, in one case a haircut. Many tell of singing Christmas carols. What they were doing, in a way, was lighting a candle for peace.
Now the first Christmas didn’t take place in a war zone and yet it also is a story of an amazing coming together. Sometimes the baby gets most of the attention, other times his mother, Mary. But if we pull pack and look, the stable seems full to overflowing. There are cows and sheep, so it’s not just human beings, it’s all creation. There are the shepherds, people working who take a break to look in; there are rich wise ones on their way, although they won’t get here for a bit. There are angels to sing, there is a poor peasant couple at the center o it all. Each in their own way is there to light a candle, a candle for Christmas.
Now it’s your turn, now it’s my turn. This is what we’ve come to do tonight: to light a candle, a candle for Christmas. Those soldiers had the courage to crawl out and do it in 1914 but then they went back to killing each other. Few truces were held the following year and none the year after. So the question isn’t just will you light the candle of Christmas tonight, but will you keep it burning?
The song with which I began has this refrain:
Don’t let the light go out,
It’s lasted for so many years
Don’t let the light go out
Let it shine through our hope and our tears.
That’s really the question of Christmas: will you keep the light of love, the candle of Christmas, burning? In a few moments, we’ll all receive a light. In a few days, will it continue to burn?
Don’t let the light go out.