It is an ancient tradition that Christmas Eve is the Feast of Adam and Eve, in other words, of the birth of humanity. You do not have to be a biblical literalist to understand the truth in the story of our first parents, and its tragic ending, with humanity exiled from paradise.
The message of the angels to the shepherds: Glory to God and Peace on Earth is the announcement that this exile has been undone. It has not been undone in that we have been allowed back into paradise. That is as obvious to us as it was to the holy family stuck in a dirty cowshed. No, our exile from paradise has been undone because God has come to us, bringing the possibility of shalom, peace, with him.
Shalom is the Hebrew word for peace, but not simply peace as the absence of conflict, but peace as the presence of justice, of universal well-being. It is certainly one of the most important words in all of the Bible. In a way it is the word that the biblical story is all about. However it happened, shalom is what is being sought by both God and humanity throughout the story. In particular, if one takes God as the main character of the Bible, the story is about God’s quest for shalom with his people, and their determination to have it on their own terms, even if that means the decentralization of God altogether.
Finally, the story goes, as Christians tell it, God decides that the only way to bridge the gap between himself and his people is, in fact, to bridge it, to cross over. And so we have the miracle of this night, the incredible claim that God was born and lived among us. I have had friends and acquaintances ask me how I can believe this birth story of Jesus. Perhaps you have had also. Perhaps you have wondered it yourself. I have. It smells heavily of mythology, we have to admit.
What it boils down to for me is this. I love the story, and it is a great story. How it actually happened, what the “facts” of the matter are, I have really come not to care. The truth that is announced by this story is something I can believe in, that the ancient division between God and humanity ended this night. God was born as my brother, and invited me not to obey him as his slave, but to share in shalom with him as his friend. This Jesus born this night will be remembered as saying, “I do not call you servants any longer…but I have called you friends.”
Many of you probably know the story of the Christmas Truce. The first Christmas after the start of World War I in 1914, at several points along the front lines with British and French on one side and Germans on the other, men laid down their arms and refused to fight. They helped one another bury their dead. They invited each other to their trenches and shared Christmas songs and other traditions. Christmas trees were set up and even simple gifts were exchanged.
All of this was unauthorized and many were punished for it after the war began again, and it quite deliberately never happened again. By the end of war most all of those men who celebrated Christmas together had been killed, and, worse, that moment of shared humanity had been utterly obliviated. Widespread dehumanization of the enemy, such a staple of war, won the day.
The Christmas Truce is a great story, but also an obscene one on how it testifies to the reality that we are often unable to grasp shalom when it is right in front of us.
And the truth is that it is always right in front of us. Shalom begins when I meet you and acknowledge you as a human being just like me. It continues when I am able to do that with a complete stranger, perhaps someone with whom it looks as if I have little in common. And it continues yet more when I am able to do that with someone with whom I am at odds, or whom I even call my enemy. In all these circumstances the truth has never changed, that I am more like you than not.
On the other hand, the lack of peace, which leads to the lack of trust, and the lack respect and the ability to treat you as if you are somehow less than human or simply do not matter at all, begins whenever I judge my difference with you to be a matter of good vs. evil, or I make assumptions about you and write your story for you rather than ask you to tell it to me, and when your loss of well-being is a matter of indifference to me.
The most incredible thing God shows us in this story of the Babe of Bethlehem is that God himself or herself is more like us than not, and vis-a-versa. If we want peace in our lives on every conceivable level from nations in relationship with one another, to racial or ethnic groups trying to understand each other, to business colleagues debating the direction of a company, to family gathered around a table—if we want peace in all those places we have to begin as God did, by bridging the barrier, by becoming one of them until there is no sense of “them” at all, by believing in one thing in this world if nothing else: We are all more like each other than different.
The third verse of Edmund Sears' hymn text, "It came upon a midnight clear," as always been a favorite of mine.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
Beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
And warring humankind hears not the tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing.
Christmas is the Feast of God’s ceasing to strive with humanity and inviting us to do the same both with him and with one another. God has offered an eternal Christmas Truce. And it all begins in the simplest way: the steadfast belief that you and I are more alike than we are different. So it is with God and humankind in a Bethlehem cowshed; so it is with the stranger and me, my enemy and me, always and everywhere.