2010 December 25
How would you like to spend Christmas in a trench? Imagine yourself a soldier fighting a war on Christmas eve. It’s a bitter cold December night. You and your fellow soldiers are out there in the snow, in the front lines with your enemies just a few hundred feet away.
Not exactly the best way to spend Christmas!
But almost a hundred years ago, on this same night Christmas eve in 1914, that’s where hundreds of German and British soldiers found themselves. It was the First World War, and in August earlier that year they had signed up to fight for their respective countries. Everyone expected the war to be a short affair, but the war dragged on for over four years. On Christmas eve of 1914, the soldiers of the opposing alliances huddled in the snow-covered, rat-infested trenches, the danger of death constantly hovering over them.
And then something strange, but something true, happened that Christmas eve of 1914 in the Western Front in Flanders, Belgium–an event that came to be known as the Christmas Truce of 1914. It had started to snow, and all across the German line, lights began to appear. At first, the British thought their enemy was preparing to attack that Christmas eve, but to their amazement, they saw that the Germans were positioning not guns, but Christmas trees with lighted candles along their trenches. And soon instead of gunshots, they heard singing: Christmas carols in German!
Hearing “Silent Night” even in the voice and language of the enemy summoned memories of family and loved ones left behind in faraway lands, and before they knew it, tears welled up in the soldiers’ eyes.
When the Germans finished singing, the British soldiers broke into applause and then responded with their own Christmas carol. As this incredible, spontaneous caroling went on, food was lobbed into the opposing trenches–an unusual Christmas exchange of gifts in the most unconventional of settings.
A little while later, the more curious in the troops poked their heads dangerously out of their trenches, the risk of snipers notwithstanding. Even bolder ones later began to cautiously climb out of their trenches.
“Don’t shoot,” a voice shouted from the German side. “We don’t want to fight today! We will send you some beer!” A German officer appeared and walked out into No Man’s Land. A Captain Charles Stockwell from the British army went out to meet him. As the two army officers saluted each other formally, cheering erupted from both trenches. Hence, began the spontaneous and unofficial truce in the Western Front.
The German soldiers walked over to the British trench, crossing enemy lines, and the British soldiers went out to meet their comrades. The British and German soldiers temporarily ceased all fighting in the very place where for weeks on end before Christmas, savage fighting had killed thousands on both sides. But for Christmas, just for Christmas, they crossed the line that separated them, socializing with one another, exchanging souvenirs, photographs, and even playing football! They also spent Christmas day honoring the fallen, burying their dead, and reciting together the 23rd Psalm.
The next day, December the 26th, the British captain fired three shots in the air while his soldiers raised a white flag that said “Merry Christmas.” The Germans responded by waving a sheet of paper where they had written “Thank you!” Then the German captain fired two shots in the air, and he saluted the British captain. They bowed to each other, and the war was on again.
For me, this dramatic true story isn’t just about homesick German and British soldiers who decided to celebrate Christmas in this most unconventional setting. It demonstrates to us how Christmas can bring peace and friendship even in the unlikeliest places–if only we let its spirit touch us. But even more fundamental than all that, the moving story of the Christmas truce of 1914, for me, captures the true meaning of Christmas.
What the Germans and the British did that Christmas eve is a powerful symbol of what God Himself did on the very first Christmas. When God decided to become human like the rest of us, He crossed the line that separated us from the divine. It was totally unthinkable, but through Christmas, God crossed that line in order to become like us. And when God appeared in our midst as a vulnerable infant, it was clear that God had also disarmed Himself. In this unprecedented act of self-disarmament, God lay down His infinite powers and crossed the line, so that there would be no more division between the human and the divine.
Let’s think about this great mystery as we gaze upon the Infant. Perhaps this night, the Lord asks us to do the same, to do nothing less than He has done. Could it be that He is asking us to think about our relationships and tonight, just for tonight, to dare to cross a line of separation in our lives–a line that we may have been dreading to cross for some time, a line that separates us from others? Enemies perhaps, people who have hurt us or offended us in the past, and for this reason, people whom we have been unable to forgive? Or even tougher for us, to cross a line that separates us from people dear to us who have also, for whatever reason, hurt us? This Christmas, the Lord might just be waiting for us to cross that line so that we will no longer be separated from them, whoever they may be. Perhaps tonight, just for tonight, the Lord is inviting us to put down our guard, disarm ourselves like the soldiers of the First World War, lay down our arms, our hurts, our anger, our pride, and cross that line of separation… Who knows what Christmas miracles can happen?
May the Lord of Christmas grant each of us the grace, the courage, and the love to disarm ourselves as He has done so that we can cross the lines we need to cross.
Watch JOYEUX NOEL (2005) for a dramatization of the 1914 Christmas Truce.