“The Light of the World”
Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott
Monmouth College Christmas Convocation 2011
On December 3, 1933, the year Hitler rose to power in Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached a sermon using the image of a mine that had caved in, trapping those working inside, in order to describe the season of Advent. He said Advent was like that dark cave in which the miners were trapped. There is silence all around them and the miners have little hope of being saved. But then suddenly they hear the sound of tapping, and then the breaking of rock off in the distance. And even more unexpectedly a voice cries out to them in all that darkness that says, “Don’t give up! Help is on the way!” As the air grows thin around them they wonder if their Savior really will come. They wonder if they will ever know anything else but the darkness that presses down on them like a thick, wet blanket. And all they can do is listen intently to the tap, tap, tapping of their Savior trying to break through to them. Such is the season of Advent.
But on Christmas, the light breaks through. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”
On Christmas, we celebrate the light that has broken through our darkness; the light that penetrates the dark caves of our souls; the light that brings us hope and peace because with this light comes the reassurance that our Savior has arrived; our Savior who is the Light of the World.
“Do not be afraid,” the angels announce, “for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” It is important to note that The Light has not just come for a few. The Light has not just come for those of generations past. The Light has come for all the people. The Light of the World knows no boundaries, it knows no exclusivity, it knows no prejudice. The Light of the World is for all the people. And to “all the people” the Light promises big things. The light promises to break through our darkness, it promises to transform our lives and our world, it promises to bring us peace.
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, goodwill among people.”
Too often, we Christians devalue the scripture’s understanding of “peace” by spiritualizing it or by saying that it only has to do with a feeling of inner comfort or inner calm. We reduce the biblical understanding of peace to something like a stress ball or a worry doll that we keep on our desks; when the stress of final exams overwhelms us we can aggressively mush and mash our ball of peace to make ourselves feel a little better and get on with our work. But this understanding of peace doesn’t delve deep enough, it doesn’t come close to what the Light of the World truly promises. This understanding of peace doesn’t come close because it doesn’t touch the darkest darkness of all the people and of our lives together here on God’s good earth.
Peace, true biblical peace, is the end of violence and of all that leads us to it. Peace is harmony and goodwill and shalom. Peace is love and respect. Peace is a commitment to the well-being of the other. Peace is the moment when, as the prophet Isaiah puts it, “all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire.” This, this peace, is what the Light of the World promises us. The Light promises us big things.
Some say too big. Reinhold Niebuhr, a public theologian, rose to national prominence during World War II as he debated the merits of the Christian understanding of peace in the midst of a violent and horrific world war. Niebuhr concluded that the law of love and the biblical understanding of peace was “finally and ultimately normative” but that it was an “impossible possibility” in a sinful world. Many agreed with Niebuhr. His words resonated with people whose faith led them to hope for the possibility of peace, but who believed, realistically speaking, that peace was simply impossible. Today, as our troops still fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, as Israel and Palestine continue in conflict, as warring tribes in Africa still wreak havoc on the land and on the people, as evidence of our violence and our evil against each other still make the daily news, we too might agree that peace is the impossible possibility.
Yet….maybe we can still find some reason to hope. A few years ago I heard an author interviewed on a book he wrote about the story of the World War I Christmas Truce. No one has ever been certain as to how the Christmas Truce of World War I began on December 24th of 1914. The day had begun just as every other miserable day. The British, French, Belgian, and German troops were only 60 yards from each other in their trenches. They could see each other and hear each other.
The conditions these soldiers were living in were miserable. Cold rain had flooded the trenches mixed with the bodies of their fallen comrades. Rats, lice, filth and mud had made the floor of the trench so swampy that it forced the soldiers to move constantly and sleep standing up, leaning against dripping walls. It was this stomach–churning atmosphere that both sides shared that Christmas. It was this atmosphere of war and suffering that made the soldiers seek a time of respite, a time of peace on Christmas Eve.
The Germans had been sent Christmas trees from their supporters at home. They bravely lined their trench with these trees and lit the candles clamped to their branches. The British witnessing this Christmas declaration responded by sending gifts of pudding, chocolates, and cigarettes to the Germans. Christmas carols began to float through the air that had suddenly become cold and clear and the soldiers learned that they knew the same songs. We’re not sure who crawled out of their trench first, but eventually both sides met in the middle, in the space between them called “No Man’s Land.” Here they encountered so many bodies that they decided they could not be friends until their fallen comrades had been buried. So the cease-fire continued as the bodies were buried and the dead were mourned. Then the enemies returned to “No Man’s Land” and decided to play soccer.
For two whole days they played soccer in that place of death between their trenches. For two whole days they fraternized with the enemy, at the risk of being court-marshaled. And in this place and time, the soldiers realized that on each side of the rifle, they were the same. As the power of peace grew among them, they exchanged addresses and letters and expressed deep admiration for one another. So when angry officers finally ordered the men to start shooting again, many could not do so. The enemy now had a face, and a family, and a story. They could no longer demonize the enemy, so they aimed their guns harmlessly high overhead, shooting into the air. Eventually the troops on the front lines had to be replaced. They had to be replaced by men who hadn’t witnessed the miracle of that cold Christmas Eve in 1914.
This is one of the most amazing Christmas stories I have ever heard. It’s exactly the kind of story I want to hear at Christmas because it gives me hope and I want to feel hope, especially at Christmas. But as I considered this story and as I considered what I wanted to preach today I wondered if I was just being nostalgic in this hope? Was I ignoring reality? Was I reducing the promise of peace to a once-a-year sentiment just to make me feel good at Christmas? Because it was true that after the miraculous Christmas truce of December 24th, 1914, World War I raged on for four more years and three more Christmas’.
So, is there reason to hope? Is peace possible for you, and for me, and for all the people?
Well, I think I was finally convinced that my hope was more than mere sentiment or nostalgia by my husband, Dan, in a paper he recently wrote about peace. In Dan’s paper he listed a number of successful nonviolent movements in the last half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st through which peace was not only possible, but made a reality.
Dan’s list included:
- Mkhuseli Jack’s nonviolent movement in South Africa that finalized the end of Apartheid.
- Peaceful protests and strikes led by Chilean workers that were successful in ousting the ruthless tyrant, Agusto Pinochet.
- The work of Otpor!, a nonviolent youth movement in Serbia that was credited in the successful overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic.
- The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement, which brought an end to civil war.
- The Orange Revolution in Ukraine, a nonviolent movement that challenged government corruption and electoral fraud.
- And, of course, the recent Arab Spring, within which nonviolent groups like the April 6 Youth Movement had a leading role in the dramatic and transformative events that took place in Tahrir Square, Cairo.
Certainly, Dan’s list is not exhaustive. And of course, when we speak of successful nonviolent movements for peace we also must recall the classic examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. But might it be, in light of this evidence, that peace is possible, genuine peace, if we believe it to be so and if we live and work toward that end?
Bonhoeffer’s image of the miners trapped in the cave is a good one. The darkness of our world often feels like that cave, like a hopeless dark trap from which we believe there is no escape. But listen…listen….can you hear it? Can you hear the tap, tap, tapping of the Light trying to break through? It’s getting louder now; loud enough now for us to know a little hope; loud enough now for us to hear the voice of our salvation; loud enough now for us to believe.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Now to the God who promises this Peace, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore. Amen.
 Reinhold Niebuhr, “Why the Christian Church is Not Pacifist” as reprinted in Reinhold Niebuhr: Theologian of Public Life, ed. Larry Rasmussen, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), p. 241 as quoted by Daniel J. Ott in “Toward a Realistic, Public, Christian Pacifism,” unpublished.
 Stanley Weintraub, “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce,” (The Free Press, New York, NY, 2001).
 Daniel J. Ott, “Toward a Realistic, Public, Christian Pacifism,” unpublished.