December 24, 1914
It began with Silent Night. In German, Stille Nacht.
In the summer of 1914, the world went to war.
And it was a most profound sort of war -- it was truly a war between worlds. On battlefields, with names like Flanders, and Alsace Lorraine, and Verdun, the ancient world of chivalry -- where soldiers held war as a noble and heroic endeavor -- collided with the modern world, and it's new, and fearful, means of efficient killing, and mass destruction.
As the war, which both sides optimistically, and naively, thought could be over by Christmas, dragged on toward year's end, the English, French and Belgians dug in to the muddy trenches, of the Western Front, opposite the Germans and Austrians. And, there, they killed each other with a ferocity and sophistication the world had never seen.
These enemies in the trenches had much in common. They were young men; most, far from home. They had girlfriends, and mothers, and love for their countries. They also lived in similar, wretched conditions, fighting the elements and disease, as much as they were fighting each other. The average life expectancy, in the trenches, was six weeks.
There was a strong love of the Christmas holiday, and it's traditions, in all the home countries of the combatants. But, in 1914, the word from high command, on both sides, was no Christmas truce. No fraternization. No letting up. The fighting was not to be stopped, for any reason. But, sometimes an idea becomes so powerful that it cannot be denied.
On Christmas Eve, the rain which had fallen incessantly for weeks, suddenly stopped. The clouds broke and the stars shone brightly down, and the muddy ground froze, becoming easier to walk on. As the allied troops looked out across the surreal hell of No Man's Land, what they saw astonished them. Objects began to appear atop the parapets, all along the German lines. Peculiar, because, on the Western Front, to be conspicuous was to invite death. The objects, flickering in the cold air of that Christmas Eve, were tannenbaume -- German Christmas trees.
After the trees came the hastily made signs:
"You no fight. We no fight."
"Happy Christmas, English"
And after the signs came the singing.
And in the allied trenches, though they may not have known the language, they knew the hymn:
Stille Nacht...Silent Night
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh...Sleep in heavenly peace.
The next morning, the bravest men in the world, laid down their arms, and walked out, from the trenches on both sides, into the face of almost certain death. And on the frozen battlefields, they shook hands, and talked of home. Together they buried the dead, littering the fields. They exchanged photographs, and cigarettes, and there was even a game of soccer. They ate, and sang, and shared with one another what little they had.
And they prayed that the next Christmas would find them all in happier circumstances.
It wasn't perfect, and it didn't last. There is no sense pretending that Christmas solves all the world's problems.
The war dragged on for four more years, and cost a frightful number of lives. The gods of war swept across the face of the earth, in more and more devastating ways. And, in many respects, the world has not looked back. But, on the precipice of the modern world, on the bleak and barren battlefields of the War to End All Wars, humanity paused, and did something that echoes down to us, one hundred years later. For one brief and beautiful moment, Peace was more profound, and more preferred, than war.
For a few brief nights, no shots were fired. No one died. Where there is peace, there cannot be war.
Love and hatred cannot coexist, and the message of Christmas, at its heart, is a message of love.
Our world today is embroiled in a struggle that has no end. To rid the world of terror, is a task of eternal vigilance. Nobody desires war, but sometimes simply wanting peace is not enough. Liberty and security are purchased by the lives of the willing and the brave. The world, into which the Savior was born, was not a world of peace. Upon the announcement of the birth, conflict did not cease. The lion did not lie down with the lamb. The peace and goodwill declared by the angel were not given to the world collectively, but individually. Peace comes through an understanding of our place before God, and goodwill as a result of the Savior's unselfish sacrifice on our behalf.
Of all the year, the Christmas season is the time to remember that Goodwill toward men is the best way to bring about Peace on Earth.