This was my Christmas Eve message..
I read this particular story about WWI years ago. It has been written about by a number of different authors. As so many even great and moving stories do, though, this one was covered over by time and by other interests. I was reminded of it recently in a most important book, The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin. I’m going to read the story exactly as he has written it because it is succinct and moving. I doubt I will ever forget it again. That the story came into my presence is one of those events of synchronicity.
December 24, 1914. In Flanders fields. In present day Belgium the first world war in history was entering its fifth month. Millions of soldiers were bedded down in trenches which criss-crossed the European countryside. Trenches- the last vestiges of Medieval warfare, used defensively against the first fought with modern weaponry. In many places, opposing armies were dug in within thirty to fifty yards of each other and within shouting distance. The conditions were beyond anything we could imagine today. The bitter cold and always wet air chilled to the bone. The trenches were muddy, waterlogged. Soldiers share their space with rats and stench of no latrines was everywhere. Then men slept sitting up to avoid the muck an sludge of their trenches. Dead soldiers littered the no-man’s-land between the trenches, bodies left to decompose within yards of still-living comrades who were unable to collect them for burial.
As dusk fell over the battlefields that Christmas Eve, something extraordinary happened. The Germans were first, and they began lighting candles on thousands of small Christmas trees that had been sent to the front as comfort to the soldiers. The German soldiers then began to sing Christmas carols- first “Silent Night,” then other songs followed. The English soldiers were stunned. One soldier later described the blazing trenches looked like ‘thee footlights of a theater.’ The English soldiers responded to the German singing with applause, tentative at first, then with enthusiasm. They began to sing Christmas carols back to their German foes to equally enthusiastic applause.
A few men from both sides crawled out of their trenches and began to walk across the no-man’s-land toward each other. Soon hundreds followed. As word spread across the front, thousands of men poured out of their trenches. They shook hands, exchanged cigarettes and cookies, and showed photos of their families. They talked about where they were from, remembered Christmases of the past, and joked ironically about the absurdity of war.
The next morning, as the Christmas sun rose over the battlefield of Europe, tens of thousands of men- some estimates put the numbers as high as 100,000 soldiers- talked quietly with one another. Enemies of 24 hours earlier, they found themselves helping each other bury dead comrades. More than a few pickup soccer games were reported. Even officers at the front participated, although when news filtered back to high command in the rear, the generals took a less enthusiastic view of the affair. Worried that a truce might undermine military morale, the generals quickly took measures to rein in their troops.
It was a surreal “Christmas truce,” and ended as abruptly as it began- all in all, a small blip in a war that would end four years later with 8.5 military deaths in the greatest episode of human carnage in history to that time. For a few short hours, no more than a day, tens of thousands of human beings broke ranks, not only from their commands but from their allegiances to country, to show their common humanity. Thrown together to maim and kill , they courageously stepped outside their institutional duties to interact with one another and to celebrate each others’ lives.
While the battlefield is supposed to be a place where heroism is measured in one’s willingness to kill and die for a noble cause that transcends one’s everyday life, these men chose a different kind of courage. They reached out to each other’s very private suffering and sough comfort in each other’s situation. Walking across no-man’s-land, they found themselves in one another. The strength to comfort each other flowed from a deep unspoken sense of their individual vulnerability and their simple desire for the companionship of their fellow humans.
It was, without reserve, a very human moment. Still, it was reported as a lapse at the time. A century later, we remember the episode nostalgically- a time we have come to define in different terms than our own.
I think the story is as much a part of the story of Jesus Christ as are the gospels of Matthew. Mark, Luke, and John. For 1700 years we have heard the gospels taught as a standard to which we must rise, in order to escape our sinfulness. Our jails and prisons are full tonight, more full than any other prisons on earth, they’re full of men and women who have heard so often from parents, from preachers, about how bad they are, how fallen they are, how wicked their human hearts are, that they simply gave in to the human summary of their lives. I’ve heard it dozens of times, “I’m just bad, so I give up; I will just be really bad.”
I think we- we, the preachers mainly- have been telling a wrong story. The story we have told about how bad people are and how they need Jesus to save them from their badness may be part of the story, but I’m wondering if it is even the main part of the story? I think the gospels of Jesus are most importantly about his ability to help us rediscover our deepest, in-the-image-of-God, goodness.
As the magi walked across the mean streets of evil King Herod’s Israel to be near the Christ child in the manger, so too did the soldiers of WWI crawl from their trenches to be near the Christ child in each other. The Magi weren’t bad people, and the soldiers weren’t bad people, but they were both part of bad, evil systems that take on a life of their own and claim victim after victim.
Our history books are largely chapters and more chapters of war, and then of war’s aftermath- pages of conquest and strife written in the blood of humans all over the world. But between those thousands of pages of upheaval and greed and power, there are many more thousands of unwritten pages. Those are the pages, the stories of human cooperation, human love, and human empathy which have enabled each of us to be here. People helping people to live: to eat, to be safe, to heal, to be healthy. Each of us are unbroken strings of life, back to the beginnings of life itself, in which goodness has prevailed, has had to prevail.
We live, most of us, in the quiet, in the love of families and communities. We live in celebration together, caring for each other. We feed our families, play with the kids, make sure the woman down the street has something to eat. We give rides, we share money, care, and we share love. Because from the moment of our conception, that love is in us..that God-ness is in us.
But we hear about the events of war, of crime, of the rich who want to be richer and the poor who are so desperate they will do anything to stay alive, and we are made afraid.
Made afraid. Leaders raise armies of people who will do their bidding because they have been made afraid. As bad as crime is it seems worse as we are intentionally made afraid. We are made of afraid of living because we are made so afraid of dying. The darkness of fear becomes the darkness we mistake for general and inevitable evil. And we feel like we are bad, and if we don’t feel like we are bad we are told by spiritual leaders and others that we are bad. And so, like so many prisoners, we give into our supposed and learned human nature of being bad. But I think we’ve been taught wrongly. We’ve been had and we’ve been used and we have been turned into something God did not intend us to be.
Jesus came to set the prisoners free. He said that the very first time he stood up to accept his responsibility as a teacher, a guide, a savior. And it began when he was a baby.
God didn’t send a soldier, or an archangel to fight against the evil of the world, he sent a baby..innocent and utterly dependent on the good will of others. A baby..who enabled everyone around him, even before he was born, to be reminded of their God-imaged goodness. Everyone who came near him cared for him, shared with him, sang about him, protected him. Even in the case of the wise men, they protected him at the risk of their own lives.
The people who came near the baby, the Word made flesh, were reminded that this is NOT a dog eat dog world. This is a world in which the interconnectedness of everything is the only reason there is life and that there is, as Jesus promised, life abundant for those who free themselves of fear, of their own assumed badness.
Fear not! Jesus would say over and over during his life, in all kinds of situations to all kinds of people.
And that is my message for you this night. Be reminded by the Christ child that you are good, that you were born good, born to be in goodness with others, to proclaim God’s image in you by the Life you live. Think about your feelings right now; feel how you feel. You are with families, with a community..people you love and who love and many more you care deeply for and who care deeply for you. And dozens, scores- right here, right now- who you would do more for than you can even imagine being able to do.
This is the way God intended us- connected, whole and helping..good. And that reality is exactly what Jesus enables us to remember about ourselves: we are never alone, God is with us and we are with each other. Thanks be to God
Listen now, as we sing together now, “Silent Night.” Imagine, as we sing, imagine men crawling from their trenches just 96 years ago, crawling from the darkness of their trenches and moving with the re-kindled Light in them, toward the Light in others. It’s an image I believe we live within the potentials of all the time- an image, a memory in which we can live and move and have our natural and our best being.
Stand now as we sing. The Light will passed as we sing- the Light, an outward and visible expression of the Light already in you.. Let’s stand now and sing..