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The Christmas Truce – 12/24/2014

A few moments ago we sang, as we often do this night, the carol, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” You may already know that the author of that work was a Unitarian minister, Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears. His hymn was composed at the behest of our congregation in Quincy. At the time of his writing, the Mexican American war was only recently ended. Revolution had broken out across the central states of Europe and been brutally repressed. War was in the air, and war was on his mind. And so, he wrote – and here I’m going to quote his original lines:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife

The world has suffered long;

Beneath the angel-strain have rolled

Two thousand years of wrong;

And man, at war with man, hears not

The love-song which they bring;

O hush the noise, ye men of strife,

And hear the angels sing.

One hundred years ago, when the world was at war with what they would call the Great War after it was done, what we call the First World War now – one hundred years ago tonight there were trenches dug in all along the French countryside. Two lines of troops – German on one side, French and British on the other – huddled in the cold December mud behind sandbags, barbed wire, and machine guns. The distances between those trenches were measured out in the range of mortar fire – the war had broken out at a time in history when new technology made it possible to defend a position with terrifying violence and destructive power. The equipment and innovation for attacking such defenses hadn’t caught up yet, so the two sides sat frozen in the mud, grinding away at each other with one bloody, pointless assault after another.

The soldiers who sat in those trenches had been told by their governments and by their commanding officers that the men on the other side, across the barbed wire and through the void of No Man’s Land, that these were not men at all. That they were, rather, monsters; inhumane and therefore inhuman. Guilty of the most despicable sins, violent without remorse, and determined to bring death and suffering to the homelands all good soldiers serve to protect. In December, 1914, the trenches were newly dug, but the stage was set for a long and hateful conflict – and a long and hateful conflict did result: the bloodiest war in the history of human record up to that point.

But tonight, friends, is a night when we talk about miracles, so here is the miracle. In that last week before Christmas, quiet began to break out on the Western front. At points all along the line between the two forces, the soldiers began to decorate their grimy, makeshift homes. They lit candles and set up Christmas trees where the enemy could see them. Christmas carols began to be sung. The troops spoke different languages, but many of them knew the same tunes, just with different words. Eventually, some few officers here and there found courage enough to defy orders, and call a truce. The first souls, braver still, ventured out across No Man’s Land, the scarred real-estate possessed by neither army and vulnerable to fire from both, and there met their adversaries face-to-face. They shook hands, exchanged small gifts. They held memorial services for their comrades who had died – in some cases the services were held jointly, in two or three languages, as they buried men who two or three days earlier had been shooting at each other. Some makeshift, international games were played of football, or, as it is termed in American English, soccer.

At its longest stretch, the Christmas Truce, which was really many different, small breakdowns in the war, lasted only a week or so. Then, fighting resumed. There were three more Christmases spent in the trenches. The leaders of the war efforts on both sides wanted to make sure that such a truce did not break out again. Special orders were given to step up the fighting, to increase the violence, on and around Christmas time, in order to prevent a repeat. So it is the Christmas of 1914, one hundred years ago tomorrow, that stands alone as a spontaneous breakdown in the prosecution of war.

In the Gospel According to Luke, the teacher Jesus is said to have said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within and among you.”[i] Just what the teacher meant by ‘kingdom of God’ may not have been agreed upon even by his earliest students, and 2,000 years later the term has no single definition. But the interpretation that makes the most sense to me, is that the man from Galilee was speaking of a possible relationship between all people which Edmund Sears pointed to in his final lines:

When peace shall over all the earth

Its ancient splendors fling,

And all the world give back the song,

Which now the angels sing.

Such peace – real peace, not the false sort, cheaply bought, at the price of freedom, and the cost of our complicity to injustice – is not solely for some distant day. It is within and among us. We are counseled to wait for it, yes, but not to wait quietly. Not to accept, never to accept, that contradiction can only be resolved by violence. That difference must be a destroyer of relationships, rather than the foundation upon which new ones may be built. All war, all violence, depends upon the premise of irresolvable contradiction. Our world is full of ideas which we tell ourselves and each other must destroy or consume one another. The clash of civilizations, the culture war, the 10,000 year-old debate between theist and atheist, the nationhood of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, and as it has been most recently articulated, the supposed contradiction between the sadly radical idea that Black Lives Matter, and the value that the lives of police officers matter as well. The kingdom of God is within and among us, in those places where we refuse to accept those contradictions. Where we, against the orders of a wounded culture, sing songs with our enemies, and dare to step out into the land no army may possess.

The great Muslim mystic and poet, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi wrote,

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field. I will meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about

language, ideas, even the phrase each other

doesn’t make any sense.

My dear friends, in this season of lights and songs and the turning of the year, may we remember that the promise our old, beloved songs speak of, is within and among us. We need not wait, we cannot wait, to fulfill it, if waiting means silent acceptance of the way things are. So let us seek out the places where there is a truce to be made: not by accepting the status quo, but by unmaking it into something finer. Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. May all of us come to meet there, to lie down in its grass, and, perhaps, to hear the angels sing.

[i] Luke 17:21


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