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MERRY CHRISTMAS: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light

How would the people in darkness see the great light? It is by embracing Jesus, the “light of the world.” That’s what Christmas celebrates. This light comes tangibly to us in the Word made flesh, "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Luke’s account of the gospel captures it, the emperor Augustus Caesar orders that humans be counted. Scripture describes that as “the first enrollment.” It is indeed, the first enrollment, because, unknown to the Roman authorities, the savior of the world is being ushered in, “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Col. 1:15). Everything changes with Jesus’ entrance, though born in a manger. Joseph and the people of Judea receive this herald of David’s throne. The shepherds in the fields encounter the great light. The heavenly multitude and the hosts of angels go into ecstasy, praising God, “Glory in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

The prophet Isaiah kicks this message about the messianic era for us,

"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” These characteristics highlight the reason for the great joy: our king comes with wisdom, supremacy, compassion and care; justice and fairness will reign through him. Amen!!!

Let’s recall the experience of World War I in early December 1914, when the fighting in Europe had grown for almost five months. Pope Benedict XV had called for a Christmas truce. However, his efforts failed when Russia rejected his attempt at peace. The trenches of war were filled with weary, cold soldiers. Does anyone recall the meaning of “no man’s land?

No man’s land” was the place where corpses of those who tried to advance lay unburied during World War 1. Germany has really cold, miserable winters. Soldiers of various nations were freezing, hiding in their fox holes. Separating the soldiers was a short stretch of space between trenches of the German soldiers and the soldiers considered enemies of various other nations – the British, French, Belgians, etc. But on Christmas Eve of 1914, no man’s land was transformed into sacred ground, a momentary fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy.

British machine gunner Bruce Bairnsfather, later a prominent cartoonist, wrote about it in his memoirs: “Here I was, in this horrible clay cavity,…miles and miles from home. Cold, wet through and covered with mud.” There didn’t “seem the slightest chance of leaving—except in an ambulance. I listened. Away across the field, among the dark shadows beyond, I could hear the murmur of voices.” He turned to a fellow soldier in his trench and said, “Do you hear the Boches [Germans] kicking up that racket over there?” “Yes,” came the reply. “They’ve been at it sometime!” The Germans were singing carols, as it was Christmas Eve. In the darkness, some of the British soldiers began to sing back: “Suddenly, we heard a confused shouting from the other side. We all stopped to listen. The shout came again.” The voice was from an enemy soldier, speaking in English with a strong German accent. He was saying, “Come over here.” One of the British sergeants answered: “You come half-way. I come half-way.” “Here they were—the actual, practical soldiers of the German army. There was not an atom of hate on either side.”

On their own, the soldiers decided not to fight on Christmas. The Chicago Herald printed part of a letter from a British soldier describing what took place on that 1914 Christmas Eve: “On Christmas eve we were shouting across ‘Merry Christmas!’ The Germans shouted, ‘Don’t shoot till New Year’s day!’ Christmas morning the weather was foggy and there was no firing. We started wandering over toward the German lines. When the mist cleared we saw the Germans doing the same thing.”

Climbing from their trenches onto the battle-scarred “no man’s land,” British and German soldiers shook hands, swapped cigarettes and jokes, and even played football. “We all have wives and children…we’re just the same kind of men as you are,” one German said. Gifts were exchanged between soldiers: pies, wine, cigars and cigarettes, chocolates, pictures, newspapers. Whatever they had with them in the trenches. Some even exchanged names and addresses to reconnect after the war! (New York Times, December 31, 1914, World War History: Newspaper Clippings 1914 to 1926.)

Most famously, they played an impromptu soccer game, now fittingly commemorated in a statue outside of St. Luke’s Church in Liverpool. The statue, titled “All Together Now,” shows a German and British soldier bending forward to shake hands, a football at their feet. This is what Christ brings, the people who walked in the dark trenches of war found a great light.

Here’s a personal story, one that’s recent: The sisters at Emeka’s orphanage in Nigeria recently picked up an abandoned baby boy. He was left at the Marian grotto in one of the cathedrals in the southeastern state. When the sister arrived at the scene where the baby lay, she found a letter written by the mom who described that she could not handle the boy's chronic disabilities. Here’s a part of the letter written by this boy’s mom:

“I put to birth on October …, and I suffered from last year till now, no one to help. I wanted this child alive, that is why I accepted the suffering but now it has affected my education badly, my personal life, even my brain. I am losing control. Since last year till now, the child has no improvement. He can’t crawl, walk, feed himself. He can’t even recognize his mother’s face. What I am expecting is not what I am seeing. I am tired. So I have decided to go back to school to continue my education. I can’t carry this load alone, that is why I decided to drop this child at the church. So, please, brothers, sisters, Rev. fathers and mothers, I need your help over this child. I love him so much, that is why I need him alive. May the church help me take care of this child for him to be alive.”

As Sr. … read this letter to me, I was almost shedding tears. I encouraged her to take him in. They named this baby after Saint Anthony Claret on whose feast day he was picked up and gave him my native Igbo name. Few days ago, the Family Apostolate sent some money to the children for Christmas. They were all dancing and celebrating as each got their Christmas presents. What touched me in the video was the way one of the kids delightedly carried this boy (Anthony) and jumped up like it’s her own little brother. They’re all joyful. Isn’t that the meaning of the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy, that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light? How can this light reach out from us to those in darkness?

The truth about Christmas is obvious. Christmas holidays bring us together with family and friends that we don’t often see. Sometimes those people have hurt us. Sometimes, those people have failed and disappointed us. Sometimes those people have betrayed us. Maybe a brother or sister, mom or dad, husband or wife, uncle or aunt, maybe a friend. Like the ‘enemy’ soldiers during WWI, let’s reach out with peace and joy in our heart. Like these kids who have embraced little Anthony in their midst. Can we lay aside our differences to enjoy the birth of Christ? Peace on earth begins very small. The little Jesus in the manger is the reason for the world’s joy.

God is inviting us to run with this good news of great joy. Don’t drop the ball, something great is happening in your life. Can Jesus find that space in your heart, no matter how little? Can that “no man’s land” become a place of peace, forgiveness, joy, and freedom to embrace others? Can that dark spot in your heart be aglow with the light of charity and compassion? Everything becomes different at Christmas. The cookies taste sweeter. The gifts bear deeper symbol. The food becomes merrier. The family reunion is more joyful. The travels are more exciting. The flowers bear greater love. The lights exemplify Jesus. The tree stands taller than anything else in our homes. The darkness gets illumined. The atmosphere smells different. Even the cold winter seems stronger. Joy overtakes gloom because the savior is born. Christmas changes everything. Let’s join the angels in saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Lk. 2:14).

Readings: 1st- Is. 9:1-6; 2nd- Titus 2:11-14; Gospel- Lk. 2:1-14


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Great message Fr. Vin. Merry Christmas!

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