Advent I, 2018
They thought it would be over by Christmas. A lot of them had no idea why they were fighting. In July 1914 hundreds of thousands of Germans lived in England working as cab drivers, waiters, construction workers, even teachers. They had to leave their jobs and their homes to go back to Germany to fight against the people they had driven around and lived next door to. Instead of home, Christmas 1914 saw two massive armies, a generation of young men, facing each other from dark trenches over the frozen fields of France.
The first newspaper report of the Christmas truce told of a chaplain being sent to the British lines for the funeral of a Scottish officer. Some of the soldiers attending the funeral notice German soldiers standing around their trenches, unarmed. A few minutes later shovels started to rain out from the German trenches, into the fields where hundreds of British and German dead lay. The British answered with dozens of shovels from their trenches. A ceasefire was called for soldiers, people, perhaps former neighbors, to bury their dead. After which there was a joint prayer service over the graves.
In another section, a chocolate cake, sent over by the Germans, arrived in a British trench with an invitation to a concert they were holding to honor their captain who was celebrating his birthday. They said, “leave your guns, your only admission is your empty hands.”
Years later, a German soldier said, “We came from our mouseholes and saw the English advancing towards us and waving cigarette boxes, handkerchiefs and towels. They had not rifles with them and there we knew it could only be a greeting and that was alright.”
And in one section, Germans began singing “Stille Nacht.” When it was finished, “God rest ye merry Gentleman” rang out from English trenches.
The remarkable story of the Christmas truce of 1914 is that it was not spontaneous. Pope Benedict XV contacted the foreign offices of the hostile countries seeking a ceasefire for the holidays. He was rebuffed. A hundred and one British suffragists wrote an open letter to the women of Austria and Germany proposing a ceasefire. Nothing came of that effort.
Still, soldiers living, and dying, in the darkness of trench warfare, ignored the ignorance and the narrow-mindedness of political and military leadership, to spend Christmas together. Exchanging gifts, singing songs, playing soccer and burying comrades, they crossed the divide of their world, no-man’s land, to once again become neighbors.
Now, in a time when the divides of our world once again seem dark trenches with a no-man’s land between, we begin our Advent journey with the word ‘Peace.’ Isaiah declares “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.... on them the light has shined…for a child has been born for us…and he is named Prince of Peace.”
The darkness surrounding the people who first heard Isaiah, was a land of brutality, poverty, hunger. The people were powerless. Security and safety had been stripped away. Every asset could be usurped, every child born could be taken, every field planted could be harvested by the mighty. The land of deep darkness was a land without hope.
The darkness of climate debate, economic debate, class and race divides, politicians arguing, a cousin railing on social media, one family swallowed by opioids, another by a pink slip, mass shootings, a neighbor ranting, a cancer encroaching. These are the trenches of today, this is how the darkness descends. And we ask, from ‘whence comes the light?’
The light shines first from the one born, the babe in the manger. Then the light continues to shine as each of us reflects Christ’s light. I caught a glimpse of this light visiting Sharon this week. What a blessing that she was released from her “captivity” Friday. Throughout her stay in the hospital she collected nicknames. Monday she told me her latest was “Cheerleader.” Walking up and down the ward, she greeted caregivers and patients alike, lifting spirits, cheering on to health and stamina, folks experiencing the darkness of cancer, the fatigue of a long shift. Sharon embodied the intentionality of bringing light to darkness.
WWI soldiers ignoring commanders and political leaders who themselves ignored calls for a truce, took the idea of truce and made it reality. They intentionally brought the light of peace to a very dark place.
Remembering the Christmas truce more than a century later isn’t just about what happened then. It’s about what we, God’s children, followers of the Prince of Peace, can do, now, in the trenches of conflict and fear in which we can find ourselves. What can we do today, this Christmas, to help our families, our communities, our world hang on to our humanity in the face of brutality? What can we do to continue to love one another and to care about those we don’t even know, while so much around us shouts at us to hate and fear and fight? How can we meaningfully pray for those we call enemies? How can we find the light of peace?
Gareth Higgins, a writer from Northern Ireland, steeped in the darkness of Ireland’s conflicts and the light of reconciliation, writes on peacemaking.
“There are lots of ways to prevent violence, lots of ways to repair its consequences, lots of ways to build beloved community. In a polarized society there may be no more effective violence prevention measure than building bridges, or at least none more accessible. Get to know at least one person who votes differently. It’s not necessarily easy. But its necessary. And the history of conflict transformation proves it works. Start with the person of different political views with whom you feel most comfortable. Just get to know each other. That is the work.”
On Christmas 1914, soldiers from opposing dark trenches, rose into the light to meet, to greet, to share, to find a neighbor. To sing a favored carol. It is the light that makes it possible to follow a path out of darkness. Once again, the world needs the calming peace of that Silent Night. Can you allow Christ’s light to shine a path for you out of