It has been easy to be myopic in 2020, to see the world only through a nearsighted lens. At a time, the entire world is at war with a pandemic, our own worlds have shrunk as a result of limits regarding usual activities and time with people we love. We feel that even more as we approach Christmas, but in the midst of warring factions of all types in all areas of the world one example stands out to me as we approach Christmas Eve. Some of you may know the story, but it bears repeating when so much has sought to divide us during this year.
In July 1914 “the war to end all wars” began. Most of us know it as WW I and it still stands as one of the most horrific wars that mankind has endured. Men on the battlefield lived in trenches filled with the wounded, dead, filth, water, rats, and poison gas raining over them for four long years until November 11, 1918. For all the tragedies that occurred, “the war to end all wars” didn’t accomplish that mission.
On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV proposed a halt of fighting between the warring nations for the celebration of Christmas. The leaders of the nations rejected his proposal, and the war went on, but then on Christmas Eve a strange thing happened along the 400-mile battle lines that had already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives during the previous months of battle.
Later in the evening on Christmas Eve the sounds of gunfire began to quiet. Soldiers waited in uncertainty wondering what their enemies would now do. And then in the midst of the cold, wet, muddy trenches came a sound no one expected – the German soldiers began to sing “Stille Nacht” that the English soldiers knew as “Silent Night” which had first been written in German. Confusion slipped away as the English soldiers listened and then began to sing back the familiar song. The men in the trenches had determined they would determine a ceasefire the nations’ leaders would not. What began in one spot soon began to occur at other locations along the long battle line.
The story of that night goes on with some saying that a solider from one side of the battle line called across the “no man’s land” and invited his enemy to meet halfway between the trenches. Little by little men anxiously climbed out of their trenches to meet in the barbed wire space between the enemy armies.
Many of the men brought gifts of things they had received to share with their enemies – tobacco, chocolate, hats, badges, and alcohol among them. German soldiers reportedly lit candles along the edges of their trenches at some places. Handshakes were exchanged and songs shared along with the meager gifts they shared. Sometimes bartering took place as a soldier would offer a haircut for a tin of tobacco. There were stories of football being played, not everyone was in agreement with what was happening and it didn’t happen across all the battle lines.
It was not widely adopted in the areas of the front controlled by the French and there was no equivalent stoppage on the Eastern Front with Russia, but what became known as the “Christmas Truce” between the United Kingdom and German soldiers was a special time that was never again repeated. Violence returned to the Western Front, but some areas were without bloodshed until New Year’s Day.
It can be easy for any and all of us to complain about division that has increased over so many things in so many places. We blame leaders at every level and of every political stripe. We want someone to fix this, to make a difference, and to make this hard time go away…at least for Christmas. But what about the example we see in this story from 1914? What took place was not done when a Pope requested it. It was not a chosen path for the political leaders of the nations that did it. It was common men in the midst of unthinkable conditions that sought for the calm of a “silent night.”
What a powerful testimony!
History of such a truce was not repeated, but over and over again history highlights moments in time where one man or woman or just a few made a choice out of their own conscience and values that made a difference and sometimes changed the course of history for good.
How like Christmas when one ordinary man and women were chosen by God to be the earthly parents of the Son of God who would be fully human and fully divine and change the course of the world forever!
What about us, you and me, what difference are we making instead of waiting on those in authority over us to make a change? What has caused us to forget the authority as believers that God has given us and the commission to be salt and light?
Salt and light are most significant in the midst of darkness, shadow, famine, and distress and it is when it is most needed.
How can you make a difference across enemy battle lines?