Christmas in the Trenches

Michael Aune—December 11, 2002
Chapel of the Cross

Isaiah 40: 1-11

Some ninety years ago, a cataclysm began that left ten million dead. The Great War was a struggle of unprecedented ferocity that ended the liberal culture of Europe and unleashed the demons— mechanized warfare, mass death, totalitarian politics. The impact of this cataclysm and struggle were once voiced very powerfully and related very effectively to Christian tradition in Wilfred Owen’s poem, “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”:

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And, as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Yet barely five months after this cataclysm and struggle began, there occurred something remarkable, an amazing, fascinating, astonishing, and exciting incident in that crater-scarred territory of no-man’s land, that miserable bit of ground between opposing trenches. It was a scene so dramatic, as one soldier wrote in a letter home, that he didn’t suppose it would be witnessed again on a battlefield—Christmas trees began to appear in the trenches and many of them had candles. While gunfire made the trees disappear here and there for some minutes, they almost inevitably reappeared when the shooting subsided. The Christmas spirit, as one historian noted, was irrepressible.

After the trees had appeared, the singing began, on occasion raucous, more often quiet and sentimental. The Germans, it seems, started the singing, and the effect on the opposing trench, as the tones began to echo across the frozen wastes of no man’s land, was spellbinding. In many places “Stille Nacht” or “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” was intoned quietly in chorus. At one point across from the French a lone harmonica began in a moment of stillness to play “Silent Night,” and the gentle, haunting tones, in the midst of complete quiet, mesmerized the French.

Gradually, firing ceased almost everywhere along the line that Christmas Eve. Men got up and sat on their parapets and shouted greetings across to the “enemy.” Conversations began. A Saxon challenged the British to come across and fetch a bottle of wine. Soldiers moved into no-man’s land, or in some cases even into each other’s trenches, and celebrated. Some were shy. Some were more open. They talked, sang, and exchanged stories and gifts. Burial parties were arranged. The Christmas spirit had simply conquered the battlefield! In some places, this truce continued until New Year’s Day. In some cases, it lasted well into January, even into the second week.

This extraordinary moment in time recalls another extraordinary moment in time—one announced in our Old Testament reading where God speaks anew into the silence and desolation of warfare and exile. God speaks a word of comfort, a word of radical, inexplicable reassurance that is to change the lot of God’s forlorn people, to give them freedom to live and to have a future. These are stunning words of hope and encouragement:

Comfort, comfort my people says your God
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her
that her warfare is ended—
that her iniquity is pardoned
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins…

In this reading, we hear that God is about to do a new thing. God will personally return and vindicate God’s people even when times have grown yet darker and judgment is the reality. And, in the midst of darkness and judgment, God offers comfort and forgiveness. In fact, the comfort and forgiveness offered is the coming of God. And, if and when God comes, people will have a future.

Today, however, it is so hard to believe these promises of God. As we teeter on the brink of war yet again, it is difficult to find even one small crack in the heavens through which God’s mercy might flow, through which the comfort and tenderness of God might come, through which the Lord Jesus might descend in power and glory. We awoke this morning—and this morning was no different from other mornings—there is not even [as my pastor said a week ago] a hair-line crack in the sky’s facade and no sign at all of the coming of God. We see only what Jesus himself saw while hanging on a cross, when he searched the heavens over Golgotha but did not find the God to whom he prayed.

And, yet—once… dare I say more than once… it really happened… it really happens. God’s resolve for newness occurs where none seemed possible. Here is a powerful and gentle God who brings people home, ends their exile, dispels their darkness, and begins life anew—whole, safe, protected. It’s much like that Christmas truce of nearly a century ago, when out of the meat grinder of the Great War, amid the seemingly uncontrolled savagery, a small miracle occurred, when those soldiers on both sides laid down their arms, exchanged gifts, and became human beings instead of instruments of destruction. Perhaps, as someone else has said, it is the “best and most heartening Christmas story of modern times.”

So, it has been… for on Christmas Day, 1988, a story in the Boston Globe mentioned that a local FM radio host played “Christmas in the Trenches,” a ballad about the Christmas truce, several times and was startled by the effect. The song became the most requested recording during the holidays in Boston on several FM stations. “Even more startling than the number of requests I get is the reaction to the ballad afterward by callers who hadn’t heard it before,” said the radio host. “They telephone me deeply moved, sometimes in tears, asking ‘What the hell did I just hear?’”

I think I know why the callers were in tears. “The Christmas Truce story goes against most of what we have been taught about people. It gives us a glimpse of the world as we wish it could be and says, ‘This really happened once.’ It reminds us of those thoughts we keep hidden away, out of range of the TV and newspaper stories that tell us how trivial and mean human life is. It is like hearing that our deepest wishes are true: the world really could be different.”

And, so we have prayed this morning and pray again now—“Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to prepare the way for your only Son. By his coming give us strength in our conflicts and shed light on our path through the darkness of this world.” This is not a whisper, but a bold, hopeful cry: fulfill your promises… comfort your people… end our exile and warfare… shine upon us and guide us into the way of peace. Give us the hope that is not a melancholy fantasy but rather life itself. Give us the power and the grace to sing, “For the glory of the Lord, now on earth is shed abroad, and that all flesh shall see the token that God’s word is never broken.”