This Christmas marks the centennial of a small but remarkable event that has echoed down the last century as a reminder that our war-time “enemies” are human beings, just like us, and that in the midst of darkness, light can shine. On December 24/25, at a number of locations along the Western front, impromptu truces occurred between Axis and Allied forces. There is some historical debate as to the extent of these truces, but it is clear that they happened and that the military high commands on both sides were not happy about it.
A few weeks before Christmas, on December 7, Pope Benedict XV, appalled by a war he called “the suicide of Europe”, had appealed to both sides for a Christmas ceasefire. He was rebuffed. However, there exists an urban legend dating to the war years that at least one of the truces on the front was started by Benedict himself: that he secretly left Rome and went to the front lines, where he stood on a parapet and appealed to both sides to stop fighting. For his troubles he supposedly was shot. This legend is not well documented on the internet, but the leftist Dutch journalist Pierre Van Paassen took an interest and investigated it in his autobiography Days of Our Years. (This link retrieves a snippet of the text where he tells the story as he heard it.)
In and of themselves these truces were not remarkable in the history of warfare: there were often moments of fraternization and exchange between soldiers of opposing armies. I have read that during the American Civil War, Union and Confederate soldiers doing picket duty (especially during the winter months when there was no active campaigning) engaged in trade, exchanging Southern tobacco for coffee and other products kept out of the South by the blockade. But in World War I the military and civilian leadership on both sides made extensive use of propaganda to demonize their opponents (for instance, see here and here), so it is heartening to see that after four months of fighting their efforts had not been completely successful. (Later in the war, as the horrific death tolls continued to mount, it was much easier to paint the enemy as the evil “other”.)
Two years ago I called this truce to mind as a springboard for a brief discussion of calls to violence in American discourse. It also gave me an excuse to share one of my family’s Christmas traditions: listening to John McCutcheon sing Christmas in the Trenches, and I take this opportunity to share this poignant song again:
I also want to share a new video from England. Every year, the major department stores compete in producing Christmas commercials that are in fact short movies. This year, Sainsbury’s decided to commemorate the Christmas Truce by filming a short vignette set in the trenches:
This ad was widely praised but also generated some controversy: Sainsbury’s was accused of both exploiting the event and of sanitizing the horrors of trench warfare.
Today, I share this story as a reminder that the light of Christ overcomes the darkness, and that this light can shine through in the most unexpected times and places. Friendship and generosity can, albeit briefly, overcome division and hate. The angel’s “tidings of great joy” continue to echo through the years and in the hearts of people of good will.
God, in his love for us, encourages us and waits patiently for us to be this light and this love. This was part of the message of Pope Francis in his homily for Christmas Eve mass:
The origin of the darkness which envelops the world is lost in the night of the ages. Let us think back to that dark moment when the first crime of humanity was committed, when the hand of Cain, blinded by envy, killed his brother Abel (cf. Gen 4:8). As a result, the unfolding of the centuries has been marked by violence, wars, hatred and oppression. But God, who placed a sense of expectation within man made in his image and likeness, was waiting. He waited for so long that perhaps at a certain point it seemed he should have given up. But he could not give up because he could not deny himself (cf. 2 Tim 2:13). Therefore he continued to wait patiently in the face of the corruption of man and peoples.
Through the course of history, the light that shatters the darkness reveals to us that God is Father and that his patient fidelity is stronger than darkness and corruption. This is the message of Christmas night. God does not know outbursts of anger or impatience; he is always there, like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, waiting to catch from afar a glimpse of the lost son as he returns.
The year 2014 was plagued by violence both at home and abroad: from Ferguson, to the Ukraine, to the Middle East, to Nigeria, the darkness seems to continue unabated. As this year comes to an end, and as we look forward to another year which I sadly fear will be marked by violence and death, I nevertheless wish each of you a blessed and joy filled Christmas season. May the light of Christ shine upon you and through you. May you be blessed with the joy that only God can give.
And I pray that each of us may be messengers of his peace in the year to come. May we, as a nation, turn away from sin, from the tragic illusion that our problems can be settled by violence, and embrace the weapons of the Prince of Peace: love, fraternity, generosity, self-sacrifice. Individually and collectively, may we make choices in conformity with the Gospel message. May we not disappoint the God who waits patiently for his prodigal children to come home.