I had the honour of being the speaker at Ulster Rugby’s Carol Service. I was so delighted to have been asked, and I tried to reflect on the theme of how God, in sending Christ, was reconciling the world to himself. One of the most wonderful examples of reconciliation in recent years is directly linked with rugby.
In his book, Playing the Enemy, John Carlin describes how Nelson Mandela conquered the hearts of white South Africa by harnessing the power of the game of rugby. It really is a remarkable story of how rugby was a vehicle for reconciliation and for unity in South Africa. The film version of the book, entitled Invictus, is due to be released here in February and stars Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Peinaar. The movie was released in the US this past week, and a friend of mine who lives there emailed me to say that he had seen the movie and that it was inspirational.
The key moment in the story is how five minutes before the kick-off of the 1995 World Cup Final between the Springboks and the All Blacks, Mandela stepped out on to the pitch to shake hands with the players. He was wearing a green Springbok cap and the green Springbok jersey, buttoned up to the top. When they caught sight of him, the crowd went completely still. One man said, “It was as if they couldn’t believe what their eyes were seeing.” The great hero of black resistance and opposition to apartheid was wearing the shirt that had so long been associated with white Afrikaaners.
It was a great final. With seven minutes to go it was 12-12. The Springboks had a scrum 25 yards from the All Blacks line. Pienaar called for a back-row move, but his call was cancelled by Joel Stransky. Joost van der Westhuizen whipped the ball to Stransky, who hit a prefect drop-goal. The Sprinboks held on for the last six minutes and won the World Cup.
After the game, Pienaar offered one piece of impromptu eloquence. A TV reporter approached him while still on the field and asked, “What did it feel like to have 62,000 fans supporting you here in the stadium?” Without missing a beat, he replied, “We didn’t have 62,000 fans behind us. We had 43 million South Africans.”
In an amazing and miraculous way, Mandela, by donning the green Springbok jersey, had united a once bitterly divided country. Rugby and reconciliation. The story of Christmas is a story about reconciliation. It’s about how a holy God is reconciled to a sinful and rebellious race of human beings.
God steps out towards those like us who hated him, who opposed him, who sought to overthrow his rule in their lives, and he puts on their shirt in order to embrace them and love them. He identifies with us in our humanity in order to lift us and bring us to himself.
Without that initiative, we would still be alienated from God. But the wonderful truth of Christmas is that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”
I’m not sure if reconciliation will be the first thought in the Ulster players’ minds this coming weekend when they face Stade Francais in the return European Cup match in Brussels. Two of the Stade Francais team are facing a disciplinary hearing for blatant eye-gouging last Saturday. The Ulstermen will do well to ignore the foul play of their opponents and concentrate on reproducing the same level of performance as last Saturday at Ravenhill. The Danielli try has to be one of the sweetest moves seen at Ravenhill this season.
It was great to be with some of my rugby heroes at Knock for the Carol Service, and to have the opportunity of reflecting with them on the meaning of Christmas. I wish them all a happy and enjoyable Christmas. But first, Brussels. C’mon Ulster!!