December 24, 2014
One hundred years ago this very night–Christmas Eve, 1914–near Neuve Chapelle on the western front of World War 1–British and German soldiers were occupying trenches, with a no-man’s-land in between. This war that was supposed to have been over before Christmas (but would continue for another five years after it). Already it had created a huge wasted landscape, scarred by bomb blasts, fire, barbed wire, and the blood of thousands–a scene like the one Isaiah described in today’s first reading as “the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood.”
But on Christmas Eve, 1914, a lone voice carried through the still night air singing in German: “Stille nacht, heilege nacht….” Soon, a few voices joined in to create an ensemble, then a chorus, and finally both trenches were enveloped with singing instead of shooting, hope instead of despair, light instead of only darkness. A voice from one of the German trenches shouted, “Do not shoot after 12 o’clock and we will not do so either.” A little later, that voice called out again: “If you English come out and talk to us, we won’t fire.”
In response to the German invitation, an Irish rifleman ventured out into no man’s land and was not fired upon. Instead, when he reached the other side, he was given a cigar by a German soldier. When he returned safely to his own trench, other riflemen clambered out to meet the Germans halfway across no man’s land. Later a British soldier named John Lew wrote to his wife, “I was personally involved in something that can only be referred to as nothing other than extraordinary. There was a truce between us and the Germans, we buried dead comrades, exchanged gifts and even played a game of friendly football. The whole situation was most unreal and eerie… [A] German soldier called Wolfy even gave me a photograph of his wife. I pray this all ends shortly.”
It didn’t “end shortly,” of course. The shooting and dying resumed shortly after this Christmas miracle and went on for years. So why celebrate it at all, this false, temporary peace? For that matter, why do we celebrate Christmas now in 2014, when the world is still filled with feuding, fighting, and fatigue from defending our position or attacking another’s? Parents in Pakistan and New York, in Sandy Hook and Nigeria, mourn the untimely and brutal death of children. Our country’s political system is so dysfunctional it’s hardly even a system. Liberian families ravaged by ebola and many families plagued by other diseases grieve. Banners insisting that “Black Lives Matter” point to how far our country still has to go in the struggle for racial justice. Law enforcement feels under siege for doing their very dangerous job of serving and protecting. And all the while, pundits and politicians (and probably that one grumpy uncle of yours) fume about whose fault it is. Too often we find ourselves surrounded by darkness instead of light. What on earth could move us to set down our weapons, persuade us to meet in the middle of our so-called, “no man’s land”?
Thanks be to God! Isaiah foretold it: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined…a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Consider a different Christmas Eve, much earlier in history, though again during a time of personal distress and worldwide struggle. Again the night was dark and still, and again there was blood on the ground. Again, a song pierced the silence. But this time it wasn’t a soldier singing; it was an angel. In fact, a whole HOST of angels! They were not in the throne room of Caesar Augustus, nor the sacristies of the high priests, nor in the board rooms of important bankers, nor in the war rooms where generals strategized. Instead, the angels gathered in the dark sky above a different kind of no-man’s land, a pasture where shepherds–the migrant workers of the time, with all the status such a position still holds–were tending other people’s property far away from decent society. There the angels announced, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, God’s peace for all!”
This peace was not a truce for one night. This peace was not like the Pax Romana, Caesar’s peace, which was not really peace at all. The peace the angels meant was God’s peace, which is unlike anything the world had ever known. The angels didn’t promise there would never again be conflict on earth, obviously. Although some people define peace as the absence of conflict, we know it can’t be, since Jesus was probably the most peaceful person who ever existed, and his life was filled with conflict! The peace of which the angels sing, the peace that our newborn savior Jesus embodies, is the assurance that, whatever else happens, and wherever it happens, God is right in the middle of it, holding us. This is a peace no sword can create, no law mandate.
When the Baby Jesus grew up, he didn’t reinforce his leadership with “the tramping boots of warriors or garments rolled in blood. Instead, Jesus shows himself to be the Prince of Peace by bringing good news to the poor, sight to the blind, forgiveness to the guilty, and hope to the hopeless. Jesus comes to bind up the brokenhearted, to shine the light of love over all the weary world. This is the peace of God. This is what is born at Christmas. This is the priceless gift God gives to us. May the peace of God blanket you and God’s whole beautiful, messy world, tonight and always. Amen.
~Pastor Susan Schneider