Christmas in No Man's Land
November 18, 2014
Jesus Showed Up in No Man’s Land
We went to Ruth Eckerd Hall last week to hear “Celtic Thunder,” five Irish singers who really know how to move a crowd. It was their Christmas concert, loaded with favorite carols and pop songs. They did a powerful song I had never heard before. It told the amazing story of the way peace broke out between the trenches on the first Christmas of the “The Great War,” better known in the United States as WWI.
During the applause that followed, I overheard an older man’s voice behind us say, “Some people don’t realize that it actually happened.” But it did.
In spite of being denied by military officials on both sides and being hidden by the propaganda machines in both Great Britain and Germany — truth is always the first casualty of war — the story still got out. You can read about it in “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce” by Stanley Weintraub.
The Christmas truce is being remembered in the UK with a deeply moving television commercial this year. You really need to see it. If you watch it here you can also see a background piece that includes readings from the letters and journals of men in the trenches.
Edmund Burke may have been the first to say, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” While I’m all for expressing appreciation for people who served in the military, severing Veteran’s Day from Armistice Day has helped insulate us from a history we cannot escape.
In many ways, WWI continues to haunt us, not the least of which is that it planted the seeds for WWII. Another is the way the British and French invented Iraq without paying attention to the ethic and cultural history of the region. Equally ignoring that history, the folks who led us into our own incursion into Iraq popped the cork on those ancient conflicts, with one of the untended consequences being the horrendous evil that is being unleashed by ISIS.
The centennial of the beginning of WWI is a good time for any of us who care about the future to do some remembering of the past. Fortunately, The Great War produced a flood of great literature. A good place to begin is with Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize winning classic, “The Guns of August.” I’ve also appreciated Adam Hochschild’s “To End All Wars” and “The Great War and Modern Memory” by Paul Fussell. You can sample the amazing flood of poetry that flowed from the war at The Poetry Foundation.
Understanding what happened in the past doesn’t justify evil actions in the present, but when we fail to remember the past we are, in fact, doomed to repeat it.
Jesus In the Trenches
But for people of faith, the story of the Christmas truce goes much deeper than simply retelling a great story. It stands as a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, coming on earth, in the middle of the hellish mess we make of things, as a gift of grace. It’s a small reminder that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5) It’s a vivid witness to the words of Samuel Ryan:
A candle-light is a protest at midnight.
It is a non-conformist.
It says to the darkness,
‘I beg to differ.’
As we light our candles during this Advent season, may the memory of Christmas, 1915 inspire us to be among those who “beg to differ” with the violence, conflict, and hatred of a darkened world.
Grace and peace,