Harrowing Of Hell
December 3, 2014

Advent Evening Prayer Homily: Feasting

Preacher: Douglas Oles

This time of year, most of us have ample opportunities to focus on food.

Of course, everyone must eat, but this time of year we try to make the meals special. It’s the difference between grabbing sustenance and having a FEAST.

But “feasts” can pose a problem when try to manage events on a busy holiday calendar. For some of us, parents, children, friends, business colleagues all compete for the same few days. Some of them host a feast only this time of year, so if we have a conflict and miss one, we may have to wait another year to see the host again.

There can also be too many feasts in the holiday season. We worry about over-eating. We worry about getting the preparations done. When the feast comes, will we enjoy it? Or will it become merely one more chore to “get done”?
Today’s lessons are about food and feasts.

Isaiah (25:6–9) prophesied that the “Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.” You’ll notice he mentions the “aged wine” twice. Isaiah describes a feast as a reward for God’s people who had waited for his salvation. It was not the minimal food needed for sustenance. It was a celebration to accompany rejoicing.

In Matthew’s Gospel (15:29-39), Jesus multiplied seven loaves and a few small fish so as to feed four thousand people who had been following him for three days. For that crowd, the food was not a grand meal. There wasn’t even a vegan option. Jesus had already turned water into fine wine at Cana, but on this occasion, he was offering food for sustenance rather than the kind of grand banquet that Isaiah was talking about.

So we understand food both as something we need and also something that we desire and use to accompany celebrations. A feast should be a happy break from our daily labors, but it gets confusing when our daily labors become preparing food for feasts.

So putting today’s lessons together, where can we go to find food that is both sustenance and a celebratory feast? One excellent place to achieve that combination is right here, in church (and especially at Church of the Epiphany). At the Last Supper in Jerusalem, Jesus gave his disciples both sustenance and a Feast: the physical bread and wine, and the sacrament of His Body and Blood. It’s food for sustenance (like the loaves and fishes), and it’s also a celebration (like the banquet prophesied by Isaiah).

And if we had eyes to see the power of this sacrament, we might approach the altar with much greater awe. But God sometimes wraps his power up so it leaves humans to make a choice by their free will. I think God enjoys watching us choose our food, rather than simply stuffing it down our throats.

At the risk of offering an unorthodox analogy, it’s a like the reason why humans love hunting dogs more than they love fishing lures. Both bring us food, but humans, like God, take greater pleasure in seeing a loyal creature choosing to return to them; a fish-hook brings no comparable satisfaction. The lures we pull on a string, but the dogs have been bred in the hunter’s image. When we choose to partake in the Communion Feast, it offers great power, but only if we stop long enough to think about it.

This month, in 1914, exactly 100 years ago, the First World War was raging in France. Hopes for a quick victory had been dashed. Opposing armies had settled into muddy trenches, where rain and snow fell and men died. On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV wrote to the political leaders of the warring states, suggesting a temporary truce for the upcoming Christmas holiday. But the politicians and generals rejected this suggestion; after all, there was a war to be fought.

But then, amazingly, on Christmas Eve, German and British troops began singing carols, and their voices carried across No Man’s Land to their enemies. After a while, the opposing troops were singing to each other. The Germans even had a brass band (those Germans were prepared for everything). And on Christmas morning, some of the soldiers took the risk of climbing out of their trenches, calling out “Merry Christmas” in the language of their enemies.

Despite the objections of commanding officers, one thing led to another, and soldiers left their weapons and crossed No Man’s Land to shake hands with their enemies, exchanging cigarettes and plum puddings. It is reported that the English and Germans even played a game of soccer. Ultimately some of the French ultimately joined in, although they weren’t happy that the whole war was being fought on their territory.

Their exchanged food was simple, but it was truly a Feast.

It’s estimated that 100,000 British and German troops participated in the Christmas ceasefire and fraternization. On some sections of the front, it continued until New Year’s Day.

But it couldn’t last. For example, one young corporal in the Bavarian Reserve Infantry complained that the ceasefire was inappropriate for truly dedicated soldiers. His name was Adolf Hitler, and he would carry his anger for many more years.

In any case, the holiday ended, and the soldiers again took up their weapons; They had a job to do. The war resumed, and in later years, the troops had been conditioned to regarding their enemies as inhuman, and the great Christmas ceasefire was not repeated.

Today, World War One is widely regarded as a tragedy, destroying millions of lives and toppling several great empires while generally causing more harm than good. But we can still look back to appreciate that moment of the ceasefire feast in December 1914.

Paul McCartney wrote a song about it (“Pipes of Peace”). In 2005, it was celebrated in a French film (“Joyeux Noel”). In 2012, an opera based on Joyeux Noel won the Pulitzer Prize for music. It was even celebrated in “Snoopy’s Christmas”, where Snoopy and the Red Baron meet for a brief moment of friendship in the midst of their epic battle.

But while we see the past so clearly, sometimes we may forget to see the opportunities for a blessed ceasefire in our own busy lives. So when we feel pressed by our jobs or our schoolwork, or even by the pressure of too many feasts, we should remember to take time to celebrate the greatest Feast, the grace of Christ and his sacrament of Bread and Wine.

The communion wine meets Isaiah’s standard of being “well aged” after almost 2,000 years of Christian tradition and practice. And the communion bread will sustain us even better than the seven loaves by which Jesus fed a crowd of 4,000.

And if you’re wondering about that soccer match in December 1914, the British poet Robert Graves researched that incident and published a description in 1962. According to his research, it was a lot like this year’s World Cup in Brazil: the Germans won by one point.