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Christmas Day

A sermon by The Very Reverend June Osborne DL, Dean of Salisbury Thursday, 25 December 2014

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Christmas Day

Posted By : June Osborne Thursday 25th December 2014

A sermon by The Very Reverend June Osborne DL, Dean of Salisbury

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Hebrews 1: 1-4; John 1: 1-14

“While Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem the time came for Mary to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of clothe, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2 v 6-7)

I wonder if you perhaps remember the book ‘Tarka the Otter’? Henry Williamson was the author of ‘Tarka the Otter’ and when he was 19 years old he wrote to his mother a Christmas letter on Boxing Day exactly one hundred years ago this year. This is what he wrote.

“Dear Mother,

I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o’clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a dug-out with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes, a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn’t it?”

The Christmas narrative which has most captured our imagination this year is not the one I just started with about the baby in the manger.  The strongest Christmas story this year is surely that of the Christmas truce between British and German soldiers along the Western Front in 1914. 

The romantic version is that on Christmas Eve, five months into World War One, the British troops heard their German counterparts singing ‘Silent Night’.  Some brave soul put his head over the top of his defences only to discover that the Germans were wanting to declare a Christmas truce. And thus began what Henry described to his mother. Gifts were shared: the Germans offered sausage, the British chocolates. Hands were shaken, the dead were buried and of course the famous football matches took place along the front line.

Now the fact is that informal cease fires were becoming quite common place along the Western Front as the winter arrived in 1914. In many places there was a tacit agreement that there’d be a cessation of hostilities when bodies needed to be recovered, or sometimes when there were rest periods.  What made the Christmas truce remarkable was the number of men involved, that they openly congregated in daylight through many hours of camaraderie – and that they shared gifts.

And that’s what makes this such an appropriate story for today. It’s not only because we’re remembering the centenary of it happening. It’s also because today is a day of gifting.

Christmas began with a divine gift. As we heard from St John God gives us his very self in his Son. In sharing our human existence God gives us the gift of redemption, rescuing us from sin and death and offering us the gift of eternal life.

We celebrate that Christian hope by turning this festival into a time of gifts.

·        In our home it’s always been one of the challenges of our Christmas arrangements to discover who precisely is going to be with us on this day. Guests, girlfriends or boyfriends, relatives or members of the community. I have no objection to how many turn up or even last minute additions but in the spirit of gift-giving I cannot see anyone who spends this day with us without a present of their own to open.  It feels as if the Spirit of Christmas is to be found in that act of giving.

So as we all go home this morning to our present opening let’s remember just a few things about the remarkable power of gifts.

Firstly, be they only sausages and chocolate, gifts have the power to change relationships

However much we really like the story of the Christmas truce the officers on the Western Front hated the fraternisation which went on across enemy lines. By next Christmas the Allied commanders will’ve made sure there was no repeat of this year’s engagements and threatened court marshals for those who disobeyed. You can see why can’t you?  Exchanging gifts with your enemy risks making him something other than your enemy.  Gifts are the measure of who we are. It’s in our capacity to give of ourselves that we find ourselves and alter relationships for the better.

In the same way, as God gave of himself in Jesus Christ, he made himself vulnerable and changed his relationship with us.  Giving of himself was his answer to that cycle of the failure of love which, at its worst, leads to the misery and cruelty of the violence we have seen reported this last year.

Secondly, and here’s a message for an increasing age of austerity, with giving there is never any scarcity

Think of what was shared in No Man’s Land. There wasn’t much affluence on offer, some tobacco, a bit of food and drink. But we remember the abundance of what they gave each other: dignity, humanity, friendship, consolation, possibly humour, certainly the hope of peace and above all trust.

Isn’t it the same for us? If we learn to focus our attention on a gift economy there’s so much – the gift of time, attention, encouragement, the gift of respect and compassion, of love, loyalty and again that all-important trust. 

Affluent economies live believing that scarcity always threatens. My experience of poor communities round the world is always of their generosity. They’re never preoccupied as we are about whether there’ll be enough to share. Whereas those of us who live in relative affluence can be driven by such a desire to possess, control and consume that we breed a sense of scarcity, or the threat of it and thus so often we are afraid.

A gifting God wants us to see that in giving we always replenish what’s important. There’s no shortage of what we have to give, our only limitations come from thinking we’re best served by keeping things to ourselves.

And finally, on this Christmas morning let’s remember where St John leads us; that God’s greatest gifts to us, and thus our greatest gifts to one another, are love and truth.

We live in a world which encourages us to put a price on everything and yet we increasingly find it hard to know the value of things. We feel most confident in an economy of buying and selling, purchase and trade. Millions of us will go on-line today in order to spend this day as consumers. Yet the Christmas truce of 1914 tells us that the most powerful thing we can do, even in the extremis of warfare, is to risk being givers. We are what we give, and as we know some gifts are much more valuable than others. Grace and truth, love and honesty, such things are in a different league of value than anything we can get delivered by Amazon.

When Ebenezer Scrooge awoke on Christmas morning to find his worst nightmares weren’t true and that he was a converted man what did he do to show his change of heart? He gave the Cratchit family a gift, a prize turkey.

May the gifting of Christmas, of worship and feasting, of compassion for the poor, of family gatherings and mended relationships, and above all generosity of spirit travel with us through this Christmas season and for the year ahead.

For giving isn’t just for Christmas. Marvellous, isn’t it?