Text: Luke 2:1-20 (the birth of Jesus)
“I heard the bells on Christmas Day. Their old, familiar carols play, and wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
This is the first verse of a poem by Henry Longfellow. The refrain, of course, uses the words spoken by angels to shepherds on the First Christmas Eve. I love the musical setting of this poem, which we sang last Sunday afternoon under Wendy Edey’s leadership. And since the poem provides an entry into tonight’s reflection on war and peace, I will now read the rest of it:
“I thought how, as the day had come, the belfries of all Christendom had rolled along the unbroken song of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way, the world revolved from night to day,
a voice, a chime, a chant sublime of peace on earth, good-will to men!
But then, from dark accursed mouth, the cannon thundered in the South, and with the sound, the carols drowned of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent the hearth-stones of a continent, and made forlorn the households born of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head; “There is no peace on earth,” I said; “For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
But then the bells pealed loud and deep: God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.”
Longfellow wrote his poem in 1863 during the American Civil War. It ends with hope in the middle of a dark December marred by the horror of the Civil War and its 600,000 dead. Both sides – the pro-slavery South and the anti-Slavery North – claimed support from the Bible. It was a moment of crisis and change for the United States and the church.
On Christmas Eve, we long for peace. We pray that carols, pealing bells, and a thousand points of candle light will both mark the coming of the Prince of Peace and bring reconciliation to broken families and warring nations. Christmas Eve is a time when we call for an end to conflict and war.
I got the idea for tonight’s reflection from a Facebook post. In November, a friend linked to a video about Christmas Eve 1914. It’s an online ad for the British grocery chain Sainsbury. In 3.5 minutes, it tells the now-famous story of a 1914 Christmas Eve Truce — 100 years ago tonight — between British and German soldiers along the Western Front. I think it is quite well made — if a bit sentimental — and it has now had more than 15 million views —
In 2005, an award-winning French film, “Joyeux Noel” also dramatized the 1914 truce. In 2011, an American opera called “Silent Night” was based on the truce. The latter won a Pulitzer Prize and had its Canadian premiere in Calgary last month.
Two weeks ago, Prince William dedicated a monument to the 1914 truce in England. I find it ironic that William, who is second in line to the throne of the British Empire, has publically aligned himself with the truce since it horrified the leaders of both Britain and Germany, including the beloved first cousins who were the heads of the two empires: Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and King George V of Great Britain. George, of course, is William’s great-great grandfather.
100 years ago tonight, on the first Christmas Eve of the First World War, troops in the trenches along the 400 miles of the Western Front heard the enemy sing Christmas carols. After five months of war in which more than 1 million people had been killed, and living amid mud and horror, the singing of familiar carols like “Silent Night” in English and German reminded them of their common faith.
World War I had begun with great hope in late July of 1914. It was all supposed to be over by Christmas. But by December it was clear that the war was a stalemate. It would continue through three more Christmases and lead to another 15 million dead before the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918.
On that first Christmas Eve, some of the troops emerged to greet the enemy in no-man’s land. They exchanged gifts, wished each other happy Christmas, and in some accounts, played friendly games of soccer on Christmas Day.
Unfortunately, the Christmas Eve Truce was not repeated in 1915, 16, or 17. Perhaps by 1915, the horror of the death and destruction had become so great that even the spirit of Christmas could not break through. More likely, the execution of thousands of deserters and mutineers put an end to such truces.
Both the opera and film about Christmas Eve 1914 show that military leaders hated the truce. They had good reason to fear the contagion of Christmas cheer for in the end it was rebellion and not military might that ended World War One.
Regimes of “live and let live” continually broke out between combatants. The French military drowned a huge mutiny in blood in 1917. In Russia in 1917, massive numbers of troops abandoned the Eastern Front, which led to the overthrow of the Czar and peace with Germany in early 1918. The Armistice between Germany and Britain in November 11, 1918 was precipitated by a rebellion of German sailors in October that led to revolution in Berlin in November and the abdication of the Kaiser.
The war ended with unity against empire from below. But this was not led by the church, but by ordinary workers and peasants.
It is for this reason that I call the Christmas Eve Truce of 1914 the Last Christmas Eve.
This was not the last time people have raised their voices in carols to celebrate the birth of Jesus, of course. Instead, I see it as the Last Christmas Eve of Christendom.
Christendom is a funny word that is found, among other places, in Longfellow’s poem. It refers to the 1500 years when the church was the official religion of the Roman Empire and its successor empires in Europe, including the Britain of King George V and the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
The First World War ended in rebellion, which swept away the monarchies of Russia, the Ottomans, Austro-Hungary, and Germany. The end of these monarchies created an identity crisis for the church.
100 years later, we continue to struggle with our identity. My hope is that in 2015 we will definitively put the horrors of “peace through victory” — so evident on all sides in 1914 — behind us, and fully embrace “peace through justice,” which is the non-violent message of Jesus. Next Christmas Eve we can see if this prayer has come true, especially as the United Church of Canada completes a three-year Comprehensive Review process at its General Council meeting in August!
Christmas Eve is about peace breaking out amid empire and death. Joseph and Mary are forced by Caesar to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a census even though Mary is nine months pregnant and has to give birth in a stable. In Matthew’s version, the empire’s ruler in Palestine, King Herod, murders all the babies in Bethlehem, which forces the Holy Family to flee as refugees to Egypt.
Christmas is a time of light, love, and happiness, but the Gospel accounts contain both light and dark, death and birth; and all of these themes must have resonated in the hearts and minds of soldiers as they sang “Silent Night” 100 years ago tonight.
Since that last Christmas Eve of Christendom 100 years ago, Christmas has become more of a secular than a religious celebration, which I believe is OK. The imperialist church created Christmas in the Fourth Century as a way to pre-empt pagan holidays at the time of the winter solstice. Today, this circle is being completed.
The troops who defied military rule and embraced their so-called enemies 100 years ago represent the true spirit of Christmas. Their efforts lit the path that would finally end the horror of the War despite opposition from monarchy and its churches.
Tonight when we close our service by singing “Silent Night,” my hope is that we will feel connected to those soldiers who defied their leaders 100 years ago. They reached across no-man’s land to show that the spirit of hope, peace, and love is stronger than the call of empire to kill and be killed.
John Lennon put it this way in “Happy Christmas,” his 1971 anti-War song: “war is over if you want it.”
Sometimes with the support of God’s Grace, we find the strength to refuse to kill for empire and the strength to be willing to die for love of neighbour. When Christmas miracles like this occur, the angels sing again, and wild and sweet their words repeat, “peace on earth, good-will to all.”
Thanks be to God.