When enemies in the Great War came together to celebrate the birth of Christ
One hundred and two years ago, on Christmas Eve 1914, an incredible event took place on the Western Front in France during World War I. After an all-night snowfall that covered the battlefield with a serene white powder, unusual lights began to appear all across the German lines.
The British camp didn’t know what to make of it and thought the Germans were preparing for an attack. Instead of the sound of artillery fire however, the sound of singing made its way across no man’s land – the stretch of land between the enemy trenches.
To their amazement, the German soldiers were singing the tune of a well-known Christmas song – “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”). The British soldiers, not to be undone, responded with their own Christmas carols. A mutual curiosity and respect came across the soldiers at both camps and they began to applaud each other’s singing.
Being caught up in the joy of the moment, a German officer appeared and walked out to the middle of no man’s land and a British officer went out to meet him amidst cheering from both camps. When they finally met they formally saluted each other and shook hands. It was unheard of in all the annals of military history.
The improvised Christmas truce presented a chance for both camps to bury their dead. According to some accounts, after most were buried, the soldiers from both sides gathered to honor their fallen comrades and read from the Bible – the 23rd Psalm:
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
One historian has commented that the so-called Christmas Truce was the last twitch of the 19th century. It was the last hopeful gesture that human beings were getting better as they progressed down the long corridor of history following the crypto-Hegelian narrative of change and progress. However, the 20th century with its two world wars proved that human progress, apart from God, produces a world that is anything but “better.”
As we now find ourselves deep into the second decade of the 21st century, and the generations who experienced the horrors of World War I and II fade into history, the lessons from these two tragic wars are no longer part of national corporate memory. One hundred years later, in a secularized post-modern world, Nietzsche’s “God is dead” worldview is ironically gaining momentum and producing the death of what is essentially “human” about the human person – ethical and moral behavior.
The same “anti-progress” of the 19th century is now unfolding in our own times. Today, an overwhelming amount of people in the world find little time for God, yet find the time to spend countless hours in front of the television or internet. Parents find it difficult to have meaningful conversations with their children because they, or their children, are simply too entertained and distracted.
In some ways society is regressing back to a similar era like that of Caesar Augustus where the birth of the Messiah is only of interest to three wise men.
It was in obscurity that the Virgin Mary gave birth to the Savior of the world. And in obscurity, in the silent night of the stable, that myriad numbers of angels sang proclaiming the birth of the Messiah, the liberator of the human race.
Liberation from what we may ask? From sin and the vain idea that we can obtain peace, justice, or joy without God.
The angels announced the Good News to Mary and Joseph, in a world that was immersed in fear, selfishness, and war.
It is Christ who brings peace to the human heart and mind because only he has risen from the dead and conquered sin and death; only he has breathed his Holy Spirit into us so that we love each other with his divine love – not our own limited love. Without the love and peace of Christ reigning in our hearts, all other attempts at peace will be fleeting. In spite of the war raging in the Middle East, and the divisions in our own nation, or in our own families (real or spiritual), Jesus Christ calms the storm and leads us besides still waters.
On December 26, 1914 at 8:30 am, a little more than 24 hours after the miraculous truce, the British commander fired three shots into the air and raised a flag with the words “Merry Christmas” written on it. The Germans replied with a similar sheet – “Thank you.” Both commanders then appeared on their parapets, bowed, and saluted each other. Two shots were finally fired into the air and ominously rang across no man’s land. The war was on again; hell on earth re-commenced.
For those men who died in the battle that ensued, there was the great certainty that on Christmas Eve 1914, during the Great War, Jesus Christ reigned through a common faith that made enemies into brothers – at least for a short while before human affairs destroyed that fraternity.
It is for this reason that we should keep Christ in Christmas; this Christmas season and always.
Fr. Avelino Gonzalez is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington and pastor of St. Gabriel Church in NW, Washington, DC. This article was originally published on CatholicJournal.us.