The big story this Christmas is not so much the two-thousand year-old story as it is the one-hundred year-old story on its centenary. There has been a book written about it, a movie, and even an opera. And this year, the British supermarket giant Sainsbury’s produced a lovely three-and-a-half minute video telling a version of the story of the Christmas Truce.
The truce seems to have occurred somewhat spontaneously in several places between British and German troops who were dug into trenches on the front in Belgium on the first Christmas Eve of the first year of the First World War. Details of a somewhat disjointed and murky story have been pasteurized and homogenized to make a more perfect narrative than first-hand sources can actually provide. But the fact of a remarkable, unplanned, and quite meaningful truce that saw bitter enemies shaking hands, exchanging gifts, playing soccer, and singing Christmas carols is beyond question.
Hundreds of letters attest to various details of the Christmas Truce, but one of the most famous letters was written by Frederick W. Heath, who bore the rank of private at that early stage of the war. Heath reports that “my eyes caught a flare in the darkness. A light in the enemy’s trenches was… rare at that hour.” In short order, “light after light sprang up along the German front.” And soon Heath heard a call from the enemy’s position, “’English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas.’”
But the Christmas greetings from the opposing forces did not end there, they soon became an invitation: “’Come out, English soldier; come out here to us.’” Lights twinkling on the front or not, the English soldiers did not quit their weapons or their trenches that night, although Heath reports that a conversation took place all night long between the two sides, and the Germans sang carols, and the Brits played piccolos and sang carols too, and laughter was heard, and no gunfire.
“Came the dawn penciling the sky with grey and pink,” Heath wrote. “Under the early light we saw our foes moving recklessly about on top of their trenches.” He recalls that it was “a brazen invitation to us to shoot and kill with deadly certainty. But did we shoot? Not likely! We stood up ourselves and called benisons on the Germans. Then came the invitation to fall out of the trenches and meet half way.”
Although I am deeply suspicious of the sleek packaging of wartime narratives in order to sell groceries, I recommend watching the Sainsbury’s ad, which does a better job than I can do here of describing the kind of scene that must have followed in the No Man’s Land of the front lines of a war a hundred years ago. Soccer matches break out; handshakes and meaningful glances are exchanged; chocolate and tobacco change hands. Heath’s letter puts it simply: “Here was no desire to kill, but just the wish of a few simple soldiers… that on Christmas Day, at any rate, the force of fire should cease.”
This story plucks at nearly every heart-string I possess: from Anglo-philia; to my respect for those who serve in the military; to my peace-loving ways; to my conviction that the power of Christ can overcome every darkness, even the darkness of war; it even appeals to my love of chocolate. Beautiful though the Sainsbury’s ad may be, it is somewhat chauvinistically revisionist in that it suggests the impetus for the truce originated on the British side of No Man’s Land, and by its reckoning only the British soldier gives a gift to his German counterpart, sacrificially leaving himself with nothing but his stale and meager rations when he returns to his muddy trench.
And the little video gives only the faintest impression of what may be happening as the men from both sides return to their fortifications, and the dull, faint sound of shots being fired can be heard rather unthreateningly in the distance. Private Heath put it more pointedly: “As I finish this short and scrappy description of a strangely human event, we are pouring rapid fire into the German trenches, and they are returning the compliment just as fiercely. Screeching through the air above us are the shattering shells of rival batteries of artillery. So we are back once more to the ordeal of fire.”[i]
Back once more to the ordeal of fire.
One of the most important and most overlooked facts of the Christmas Truce was that it came to a fairly swift end; the men returned to their trenches, to their rifles, and mortars, and artillery. And the fighting resumed – the ordeal of fire – almost as if nothing had ever happened.
So what is the re-telling of story of the Christmas Truce, and its hint of good will among men, except a Ghost of Christmas Past posing as Ghost of Christmas future, and framing Ebeneezer Scrooge’s famous question: are these the shadows of things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only? Put it another way on the night we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace: Will we ever know Peace? Or are we destined to return again and again to the ordeal of fire?
“Back once more to the ordeal of fire.” In so many ways these words describe our current predicament in the world.
“Screeching through the air above us are the shattering shells of rival batteries of artillery:”
Rich vs. poor.
Black vs. white.
Republican vs. Democrat.
Christian vs. Muslim.
Conservative vs. liberal.
Fox vs. MSNBC.
West vs. East.
Russia vs. Ukraine.
Rebels vs. Syria.
ISIS vs. the world.
N. Korea vs. Sony Pictures.
Police vs. black men.
De Blasio vs. protesters.
Israel vs. Palestine.
Obama vs. Boehner
Bush vs. Clinton (again)
China vs. America.
In-laws vs. home.
South vs. north.
Capital vs. labor.
Pats vs. Genos
Baxter vs. Ozzie – yes, sometimes even my two lovely Labradors reduce the discussion in their world to this simple equation!
These are the shattering shells of rival batteries of artillery. And daily we find ourselves back once more to the ordeal of fire.
I daresay there is nothing unique about this present moment. For a hundred years we have been taking a short break, most Christmas Eves, for a taste of peace. But then we rush back to our trenches to resume the fighting – it hardly matters over what. But every year for an hour or two we kindle a light in the darkness of Christmas Eve and move recklessly about on top of our trenches in a show of affected peacefulness.
Jesus knows how likely we are to return to our trenches, to the ordeal of fire as soon as we walk out these doors. So year after year he calls us here to listen for him. Year after year the Christ child cries out from his Christmas crib, in a cry that sounds like what Private Heath must have heard: “English solider, English soldier, a merry Christmas! Come out, you Christmas worshipers; come out here to me!”
He cries out to each of us as we sit in our pews, but his cry carries further.
He cries out to those who are marching in the streets for justice they fear will never be theirs because of the color of their skin.
He cries out for those who mourn their dead children, lost in the confusing violence of racism.
He cries out to those who are sick, no horrified, at the thought of police officers gunned down in their cars.
He cries out to those whose sons and daughters are still struggling with the wounds of war – inside and out.
He cries out to the lonely, and the refugees, and the wandering immigrants, and the people who patrol the borders, and the doctors and nurses caring for Ebola patients, and the elderly who are trying to figure out how to remain independent without much success, and the children who are spending Christmas in hospitals, and the women and girls who have suffered at the hands of violent men, and the people whose secret lives are perilously close to being found out, and the addict who is without his family this Christmas because he cannot admit his addiction and he will not take the help they have offered. “Merry Christmas!” cries the baby Jesus from somewhere on the other side of the trench of whatever war it is you and I are fighting. “Come out,” he cries, “come out to me!”
In our confusion, we can’t tell if he is friend or foe. Is it safe this Christmas Eve to come out of the trench and sing? Is it safe to fraternize with the one who I thought was my enemy? Have I anything in my pocket to give him? Will you run across No Man’s Land and laugh and play a friendly match of soccer, with little care of who wins or loses?
What shall we do, dug into our trenches as we are?
The real lesson of the Christmas Truce of 1914 was that it didn’t last. And there were plenty of people who tried to nip it in the bud anyway. And when the caroling stopped everyone returned to his side, and the shelling started, and the ordeal of fire resumed.
But still the Baby of Bethlehem is crying: this is his plea for peace. Not a year goes by that we don’t have the opportunity to come out of our trenches and stay out, and move recklessly about inviting either attack or peaceful fellowship. And maybe we do for an hour or two on Christmas Eve, but like good soldiers we always return, and the warring begins again. So the Baby cries again and again and again, as we fight a thousand undeclared wars at home, and abroad, and within our own private battlefields.
And the good news of Christmas is not that once, a hundred years ago, for a night or two, or maybe a little longer, the ordeal of fire was interrupted by an interval of hope and fellowship and peace, only to resume in due course. No, the good news of Christmas is that the Baby keeps crying. He will not grow up or go away as long as we keep returning to our trenches. He just keeps crying year after year, hoping that some day we will heed his cries and stay out of the trenches.
On at least one other occasion in the Great War, Frederick William Heath found himself between the front lines of British and German forces in the midst of No Man’s Land. On 13 October 1917, an Australian bi-plane was forced by enemy aircraft to crash land in between the front lines, under heavy fire. Its pilot was badly wounded, but found cover that protected him from the enemy gunfire.
Heath, our letter writer of three years earlier, was in a trench nearby, and he jumped out of his trench and made his way to the downed pilot to try to rescue him, but found him too injured to move. So Heath returned to the trenches and there arranged for a larger rescue party to bring in the bleeding pilot, who would survive in hospital for only two weeks before dying from his wounds.[ii]
And here again, surprisingly, is a sign of more of the good news of Christmas. For if a soldier in the midst of a tragic war is willing to risk himself for a fallen ally from a far-away continent, how much more so will the Prince of Peace, now all grown up, keep coming to save you and me, even though we return again and again to our trenches, and even though we die?
In the quiet truce of this Christmas Eve, let us dare to pray for peace that will last. And if we can’t imagine such a thing, then let us be brave enough to come out from our fortifications, and move recklessly about on top of our trenches as we call out to those who a moment ago we were supposed to be killing: “Merry Christmas, merry Christmas. Come out to us, come out, so that we may laugh and sing and play together."
And let us stay out of our trenches for as long as we can, in hopes that some Christmas Eve we will come out from them and never go back, God being with us.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Christmas Eve, 2014
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
[i] A Letter by Frederick W. Heath; www.christmastruce.co.uk/heath.html
[ii] “Frederick William Heath” by Charles Woollam and Gill Joye; www.christmastruce.co.uk/heathblog.html