Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas in the trenches (J. Barry Vaughn, Christmas Eve 2014)

On the 28th day of June in year 1914, a Serbian terrorist shot and killed the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Austria threatened to retaliate against the Serbs; Russia, which saw itself as the protector and defender of all Slavic peoples, said that they would defend the Serbs if Austria and its German ally attacked them; France, bound by treaty to Russia, said that they would stand by Russia in any war that might come; and in London, the government of his Majesty King George V said that they would honor their treaty obligations to France and would also protect the neutrality of tiny Belgium.

And so on 2 August 1914 Germany invaded France via Belgium and the Great War began. Within weeks both sides had dug hundreds of miles of trenches. They stretched from the North Sea to the border of neutral Switzerland, and for the next four years those trenches did not move more than ten miles in either direction.

For four years the First World War was a dreadful stalemate, and the status quo was maintained at the cost of millions of young lives. Almost daily on both sides young men were ordered up and out of the trenches and into the no man's land between the two sides, where they faced almost certain death in the deadly hail of machine gun bullets. The casualty figures at the end of the war tell the dreadful story better than words can. Great Britain and its far-flung empire lost about one million soldiers; France had lost about 1.3 million; Italy about half a million; Russia 1.7 million; and Germany and Austria about three million.

But in the midst of the war came something like a Christmas miracle. On Christmas Eve 1914 all up and down the western front soldiers on both sides began to sing Christmas carols. Sometimes one side would sing a carol familiar to them in their own language; then the other side would respond with a carol they knew in their own language. Sometimes the same carol would be sung simultaneously in at least two different languages. One British soldier said that he would die rather than sing “Silent Night” in German, to which a German soldier replied, “And it would probably kill us to hear you sing it, too!”

Folksinger John McCutcheon tells the story of the Christmas truce in his song, “Christmas in the trenches”:

I was lying with my mess mate on the cold and rocky ground,
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound.
Says I, “Now listen up, me boys,” each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear:

“He’s singing bloody well, you know,” my partner says to me.
Soon one by one each German voice joined in harmony.
The cannons rested silent. The gas cloud rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.

On Christmas 1914, soldiers on both sides of the western front abandoned their trenches. They met one another in “no man’s land.” They shared food and drink, and they sang songs. Then someone on one side or the other kicked a football (incorrectly termed a “soccer” ball in America) into no man’s land, and a lively game followed. The soldiers shared parcels of food from home; admired pictures of each other’s sweethearts; and in places the Christmas truce lasted two or three days or longer.

The officers, safely ensconced well-behind the front lines, tried to put a stop to it, but the enlisted men paid no attention. And in places even some officers joined in the festivities. In Rome, the pope – Benedict XV – the last by that name until the current occupant of the throne of St. Peter – pleaded with the warring powers to “cease during the holy season of Christmas,” but his pleas had no impact. Much more effective than the pontiff’s appeal was the simple desire of the soldiers to keep the holiday the way they had kept it all their lives - by singing the familiar carols, exchanging gifts, and above all by remembering and telling the story of the Holy Child whose birth to a poor couple had brought hope to the entire world.

But eventually the soldiers went back to their trenches and waited for the signal to launch themselves again into no man’s land or to unleash the deadly fire of their machine guns on the men with whom they had spent Christmas Eve singing carols and playing football. But it is said that in some places the soldiers deliberately fired over the heads of the men with whom they had sung carols and shared a glass of whisky.

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more.
With sad farewells we each began to settle back to war.
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night,
“Whose family have I fixed within my sights?”

It was Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung.
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung.
For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone for ever more.

You and I live in a world that is very similar to the western front in 1914, a world divided between rich and poor, black and white, Christian, Jew, Muslim. Like the soldiers in the Great War we huddle in our trenches, our caves, our homes, fearful that someone or something may try to take away something we have earned. And sometimes our fears are not even that specific; we just fear for no particular reason because the human mind and heart seem to be wired to fear those who are different from us.

But long ago, even before the spontaneous Christmas truce of 1914, someone came into this world that we share with those whom we perceive to be so different from us, someone who would have no part of the things that divide us. He pitched his tent in that most dangerous of places – right in the middle of no man’s land, right between our warring factions. Refusing to identify with this side or that, he claimed to belong to all humanity and called himself the Son of Man.

Like the Christmas truce of 1914, his arrival was heralded by a song, a song that promised peace on earth. He came to heal the divisions that separate us. Lepers were reunited with their families; sight was restored to the blind; thieves and prostitutes, excluded by the morally upright, were made welcome in his company. To our astonishment he told us that the poor were the special objects of God’s favor. Wherever he went it was as if people came out of their trenches, even out of their graves – sometimes literally so. “Lazarus! Come forth!” he commanded, and he healed the greatest of all divisions – that between the living and the dead.

He chose to live in no man’s land, between Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, the oppressor and the oppressed. The men who ventured into no man’s land eventually went back to their trenches when the holiday was over, but he did not. He stayed in no man’s land. Of course, we call it “no man’s land” for a good reason: no one can stay there for long. Jesus had enemies. His enemies are those who seek to keep the poor in their place, who traffic in oppression; who resist the empowerment of women, who benefit from the anger and violence that separate us from each other. Jesus began to put them out of business. When peace breaks out, the merchants of war have to create new conflicts. So they really had no choice: Jesus had to die. They brought him before the authorities on trumped up charges and accused him of treason. Some soldiers took a bit of barbed wire and fashioned a crown. Others found a few pieces of lumber in the mud of no man’s land and nailed him to it. And just as surely as if a machine gun had cut him down, he died while both sides looked on. And then some friends took his body and placed it in a tomb that was meant for a wealthier man. Someone said, “Well, that was nice. The Christmas truce was lovely. For a few moments it seemed that the English and the Germans and the French seemed more similar than different, that the music of peace might drown out the discord of war. But eventually we have to go back to the real world, don’t we?  To put away the football, the violin, the bottles of whisky that we shared with the other side, shake the hand of the soldier opposite us and then pick our gun and shoot him.”

Then something completely unexpected happened. A woman of dubious virtue (there are a few attached to every regiment) came and told them that he was alive, that his grave was empty. Some scoffed; others went and found that it was true. Some saw him or were convinced by the testimony of others that he had indeed risen from the dead.

But why is it, then, that we still live in such a divided world? A world divided by poverty, oppression, race, and violence? If Christ came to heal these divisions and if his resurrection is the definitive proof that God can overcome our divisions, why does our world still resemble the western front in 1914?

I think we live in a troubled world because God gave us the great and powerful gift of freedom: the freedom to believe or not, to love or hate, to live or die. God doesn’t overwhelm us; rather, God woos us, invites us to believe. Not everyone saw the Risen Christ, only those who had been acquainted with him during his earthly life. But I believe, indeed, I am convinced, that he comes among us today just as surely as came among us 2000 years ago. He continues to live in that most difficult and dangerous of places, that no man’s land between forces that hate and would kill each other. He continues to offer us peace for war, harmony for violence, reconciliation instead of division. He holds up a mirror to human life and shows us that the violence and cruelty we inflict on others, we really inflict on ourselves.

And so on this Christmas Eve almost a century after the Christmas truce and almost 2000 years after the angels sang in Bethlehem, he invites us to come out of our trenches, our places of hiding, to join with others in song, maybe even play football. But most of all, he invites us to make the acquaintance of those we fear, to look at pictures of their family members and to share pictures of our own loved ones, to share our food and drink with those who have none. And when they tell us to go back to our trenches and pick up our guns, he invites us to say, “No.” Because now the dawn is upon us, the light has risen. And in that light we can see that the men and women we feared are no more nor less than our own sisters and brothers.

My name is Francis Tolliver. In Liverpool I dwell.
Each Christmas come since World War One I've learned its lessons well.
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame
and on each end of the rifle we're the same