By Neil Earle
Christmas, 1914. The Western Front.
Along a sector of trenches manned by a Highland Brigade the tough Scots hear the words of a familiar tune wafting from the German lines: “Stille Nacht, Heilege Nacht”
“Silent Night, Holy Night.” The Fritzes were serenading the Porridge Eaters with “Silent Night,” perhaps the most endearing and poignant of Christmas carols.
Cautiously, the Highlanders poked their heads above the barbed wire. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing. German soldiers had placed small Christmas trees and candles outside their trenches. Signs appeared in fractured English in the Gothic German script. “You no fight, we no fight.”
Incredibly, some men left their trenches, half in disbelief. Soon small parties and then whole squads quickly formed in the Wasteland called No Man’s Land. German chocolate cake, cognac, postcards, French newspapers, British bully beef (a rare delicacy), Virginia Slims – all were exchanged. In a few places German and British soldiers actually played soccer (“Germany 3 – British 2” reads the official record of the 133rd Saxon Regiment). But first both sides buried their hallowed dead who had been rotting along the front.
Frank Richards recorded for BBC History magazine his view of 150 British and Germans gathered in one cluster and 6 or 7 other clumps of men all along the line in front of the 8th Division. In the Vosges Mountains to the South, a young German solider named Richard Schirrman was so inspired by a similar event with French troops that, after the war, he founded the German Youth Hostel Association in 1919.
Peace on earth, among men of good will.
For a brief few moments the spirit of Luke 2:14 transformed the living hell of a tiny part of the worst war men had yet seen. It didn’t last long, although some accounts say the spontaneous fraternization went on into the New Year. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Frederick Niven, a Scottish poet, wrote of this event. It was titled “A Carol from Flanders.”
O ye who read this truthful rime,
From Flanders, kneel and say:
God speed the time when every day,
Shall be as Christmas Day.
8˝ million dead and 21 million wounded. This would be the final tally of the Great War, World War One, 1914-1918. The strangest Christmas celebration ever recorded was a will of the wisp. Officers and generals made sure it didn’t happen the next year, but then, the story goes, generals did in bed, soldiers die where they fall. On November 21, 2005, Alfred Anderson, the last British witness to the Christmas Truce did die in bed, in Newtyle, Scotland at age 105. But the story of that stark and beautiful Silent Night has gathered force and lives on as a testimony to the power of the simple Gospel Story. In 2005 the French film celebrating the Christmas Truce, “Joyeux Noel,” won the Best Foreign Language Film at the 78th Academy Awards.
It haunts us every time we see soldiers celebrating Christmas. Most of us get more than a little choked up at seeing CNN’s images of our bulked-up sons and daughters leaning their machine guns against an ancient mud-brick wall outside Baghdad or Tikrit or Kandahar singing “Silent Night,” trying to eat some Christmas turkey along with their K-rations and otherwise channel some fleeting memory of the season, of home and peace and special faces.
Thus have soldiers of all ages learned to cope. And cope rhymes with hope, a word that embodies part of the spirit of the season we are in.
In what Paul Fuessel called “the Troglodyte World” of the Western Front with its rats, corpses and incessant noise, that universe of mud out of which were carved 25,000 miles of trenches – enough to circle the earth – war served as a potent backdrop for recalling Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber’s masterpiece:
Sleep in heavenly peace, Sleep in heavenly peace.
Peace – there it is again, heavenly peace, the message that makes the Christmas Truce of 1914 so newsworthy and timeless and that takes on more import as the names of the great generals fade into the dust. Jesus is called the Prince of Peace, he taught “Blessed the peacemakers,” and brought the Gospel of Peace (Ephesians 6:15). So the good news of Christmas and its strange power to silence the guns along the Western Front is also a living and perpetual challenge to us today. How can we live out the meaning of the season? What can we, small individual cogs in a machine that seems biased to regularly recurring wars, what can we do to bring about peace?
Of course part of the answer is to begin right where we are, in the midst of our human weakness. Christians represent a kingdom that exists in this world in great weakness – a baby born of a virgin – but will eventually be the last one standing. “Of his kingdom there shall be no end” it says in Luke 1:33. We ambassadors of that Kingdom, we first need to grasp that the opportunities are there right there before us, right where we live, on our block, in our complex, in our communities. We may feel as insignificant as grains of mustard seed but we are the seed of the Kingdom (Matthew 13:38).
How do we practice peace as ambassadors of peace, emissaries of another Kingdom. This year a book was reviewed that mentioned coping strategies to deal with “The Dirty Dozen” we can run into at any given time right there at work, on the job (but not all at once, thankfully). These were listed as:
Recognize one or two of these?
These toxic personality types are adapted from Arthur Bell and Dale Smith’s book, Difficult People at Work: How to Cope, How to Win. These are the people who made a prophet out of the steel executive who said, “A railway is 10% iron and 90% people.”
Yes, it’s people who fight. People who disturb our peace, and people we must learn to get along with. Jesus said the greatest in His kingdom is the slave of all – the Upside Down Kingdom (Mark 10:34). The apostle Paul said he was called to be all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:22). Romans 15:1 says, “We who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak and not to please ourselves.”
There isn’t space in this brief commentary except for raising the issue and saying, There are plenty of books and course and articles dealing with the fine art of getting along and even “handling” the people who seem determined to ruin our peace. You know, the kind of people who light up a room just by leaving. Since individual people and attitudes mainly determine the culture of a team, a corporation, a group, then it’s incumbent upon serious peacemakers to seek of some of these wise strategies and techniques in the year ahead. It was the Prince of Peace who said we were to be as wise as serpents yet harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16).
Secondly, why not make a resolution to try to become a better world citizen in the next year? Those French soldiers, British Tommies and German fraternizers of 1914 hold up a high standard for all of us. Amid the living Calvary of the Great War they wrote the lesson that in the end there is just one race, the human race. Thus the more we learn more about another culture, another ethnic group, another part of the word, the better for all of us. One teacher testified that after reading The Life of Frederic Douglass, Escaped Slave he was never able to view black people the same way again. This is called G-R-O-W-T-H! It just may be that your voice around the family table, at city council, in the board meeting or at happy hour can make the difference in turning suspicion into acceptance: “Now wait a minute, I know this man Rashid. I’ve met his family. I’ve learned a few things about his culture. You can’t say all ________ are like that.”
As the French say, “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.”
It hardly needs translating.
These are mere fragile candles of hope lit against the encircling gloom, or what seems like it. Such is the way of the Kingdom of God. But sometimes one person can make all the difference in the world. One or two people have always made the difference. It was Mahatma Ghandi, who when asked about Western civilization answered “it might be a good idea,” also asked his people to become themselves the change they wanted to see in the world. That’s not a bad motto for this time of year.
Merry Christmas and a truly peaceful and prosperous New Year from the Glendora Worldwide Church of God.