It all began with a Christmas Tree. It was December 1914 and the Great War was still young. Along the Western Front, German solders on one side and British, French and Belgian troops on the other. It took place in the improbable setting of the mud, cold rain and senseless killing of the trenches of World War I. It happened in spite of orders to the contrary by superiors; it happened in spite of language barriers. And it still stands as the only time in history that peace spontaneously arose from the lower ranks in a major conflict, bubbling up to the officers and temporarily turning sworn enemies into friends.
It began when German soldiers lit candles on a small Christmas tree. That tree was slowly raised above their heads in the trenches so that those on the other side of “no mans land” now strewn with the bodies of the dead, could see this most improbable site of candles twinkling in the darkness of night. Then the carols began for it was Christmas eve. Carols in English, French and German - crescendoing with “Silent Night” “Stile Nacht”. Finally, one soldier tentatively started to crawl out of the trenches, very slowly - very tentatively. He could see the same happening on the other side. Finally, both sides were emerging from the darkness of the cold, damp trenches to meet each other on this Christmas night - not with guns and bayonets - but with the simple gifts received from home, plum pudding, cigars, cognac, and letters from worried mothers and fathers. Yet, there was work to be done. Soon both sides were gathering and burying the dead, in an age-old custom of truces.
As the Sun of Christmas morning rose, it was surprisingly a crystal clear and bracingly cold day. The spontaneous truce continued, eventually leading to friendly games of soccer. These men in arms, naively hoped that the war would be short-lived, and that they were fraternizing with future friends. When angry superiors ordered them to recommence the shooting, many men aimed harmlessly high overhead. In the end, the troops had to be completely removed and replaced by new ones who merely saw the faceless and nameless enemy across “no mans” land.
My brothers and sisters, sometimes the greatest beauty emerges from deep tragedy. For people of faith, it all began with a baby cradled in his mother’s arms. In the stark stillness of a Judean night, nestled in a cave-stable with the warmth of sheep and cattle and goats to comfort him, the King of all creation took on the vulnerability of a defenseless child.
That child whom we call wonder-counselor, Prince of Peace, would eventually grow to maturity and experience the deep tragedy of rejection and death as a common criminal. Yet out of that paschal journey the greatest beauty would emerge...a truth that transfigures you and me.
My brothers and sisters as we mark and celebrate the birth of our Savior this Christmas 2001 in the shadow of our nations deep tragedy, may we come to see and give thanks for the great beauty that continues to surprise us with its power to renew and bring forth light even in the midst of darkness: For a deeper awareness that we are indeed our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper in this land of freedom; for friendships renewed, for faith rekindled, a passion for justice, and a profound reverence for all those who put their lives in harms way to protect the dignity and safety of all God’s children. On this Christmas Day may we cherish the face of Christ, born again in those who give their lives in the service of others.
O Come, let us Adore Him
Christ the Lord!