I was 7 years old when John Lennon and Yoko Ono released ‘Happy Christmas, War Is Over’. It was a hit record back in the day and remains one of the most played tracks at this time of the year although not a lot to do with Santa Claus and decorated trees. It was a protest song about America’s involvement in Vietnam. Christmas and war seem so at odds with each other but let me tell you when they came together in the context of football match. It was the talismanic Brazilian icon Pele coined the phrase ‘Football the beautiful game’. Well we all have an opinion on that one I suppose but football stadiums are certainly places of adoration and even worship. Maybe that’s the reason why Wembley is known as the Cathedral of English football. There’s a lot of worship that goes on in that place and I’ve been to a few of the services.
But let me take you back to Christmas 1914 on the Western Front and a very famous festive football match that took place during the Battle of the Somme between England and Germany. A few weeks earlier Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary stood on the steps of Whitehall and said this “The lights are going out all over Europe” Two World Wars and over a century later, it can seem as if nothing much has changed. The Western Front was the defensive line for two opposing sides that ran for 450 miles from the northern coast of France to the Swiss border. It existed throughout a conflict that unleashed havoc without precedent and death on an industrial scale.
On Christmas Eve 1914, British troops standing in a front line trench heard ‘Stille Nacht’ or ‘Silent Night’ coming from the German trenches. They picked up the song in English before soldiers from both sides climbed out onto Nomansland, shook hands, exchanged cigarettes and cognac, took photographs of each other and played football. It was probably a hard fought 0-0 draw with England going out to Germany on penalties, it’s happened a few times since. At the final whistle, the two teams parted company, crossed the lines to their respective trenches and picked up their guns in time for Christmas Day. A strange moment now lost in the pages of history when war was overrun by peace as the guns along the Western Front fell silent, well for 90 minutes plus injury time at least.
As Christmas approached the following year nothing much had changed in terms of that dreadful war but armed sentries now guarded both trenches with orders to open fire on their own men should a return match be attempted. Whatever your expectations are of the festive season this year and the pressures it may bring, most of our lives are a far cry from Christmas 1914. This is how the Bible describes the events of that first Christmas when an angel appeared to a group of humble shepherds with these words.
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy for all people. Today in Bethlehem a baby has been born. He is Christ the Lord. You will find him wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Suddenly a great company of angels appeared singing Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”
It would appear that for all their life experience and physical labour out there on that remote hillside, those shepherds hadn’t worked out where true peace could be found. I has a familiar ring doesn’t it? 2,000 years on and 2,000 miles away from here we find ourselves approaching a very different kind of Christmas but perhaps with a very similar set of challenges. Throughout the pages of the Bible, Jesus is given several titles, one of them is ‘Emmanuel’ which literally means God with us. In the midst of the fear and uncertainty of today you can know that God is with you this Christmas and always. God’s gift of his son and of himself into our broken and dislocated world is the singular most important gift you can ever receive.