Christmas in No Man’s Land

Jesus Showed Up in No Man’s Land

We went to Ruth Eckerd Hall last week to hear “Celtic Thunder,” five Irish singers who really know how to move a crowd.  It was their Christmas concert, loaded with favorite carols and pop songs.  They did a powerful song I had never heard before.  It told the amazing story of the way peace broke out between the trenches on the first Christmas of the “The Great War,” better known in the United States as WWI.

During the applause that followed, I overheard an older man’s voice behind us say, “Some people don’t realize that it actually happened.”  But it did.

In spite of being denied by military officials on both sides and being hidden by the propaganda machines in both Great Britain and Germany — truth is always the first casualty of war — the story still got out. You can read about it in “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce” by Stanley Weintraub.

The Christmas truce is being remembered in the UK with a deeply moving television commercial this year.  You really need to see it.  If you watch it here you can also see a background piece that includes readings from the letters and journals of men in the trenches.

Remembering History 

Edmund Burke may have been the first to say, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” While I’m all for expressing appreciation for people who served in the military, severing Veteran’s Day from Armistice Day has helped insulate us from a history we cannot escape.

In many ways, WWI continues to haunt us, not the least of which is that it planted the seeds for WWII.  Another is the way the British and French invented Iraq without paying attention to the ethic and cultural history of the region.  Equally ignoring that history, the folks who led us into our own incursion into Iraq popped the cork on those ancient conflicts, with one of the untended consequences being the horrendous evil that is being unleashed by ISIS.

The centennial of the beginning of WWI is a good time for any of us who care about the future to do some remembering of the past.  Fortunately, The Great War produced a flood of great literature.  A good place to begin is with Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize winning classic, “The Guns of August.”  I’ve also appreciated Adam Hochschild’s “To End All Wars” and “The Great War and Modern Memory” by Paul Fussell.  You can sample the amazing flood of poetry that flowed from the war at  The Poetry Foundation.

Understanding what happened in the past doesn’t justify evil actions in the present, but when we fail to remember the past we are, in fact, doomed to repeat it.

Jesus In the Trenches

But for people of faith, the story of the Christmas truce goes much deeper than simply retelling a great story. It stands as a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, coming on earth, in the middle of the hellish mess we make of things, as a gift of grace.  It’s a small reminder that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  (John 1:5)  It’s a vivid witness to the words of Samuel Ryan:

A candle-light is a protest at midnight.
It is a non-conformist.
It says to the darkness,
‘I beg to differ.’

As we light our candles during this Advent season, may the memory of Christmas, 1915 inspire us to be among those who “beg to differ” with the violence, conflict, and hatred of a darkened world.

Grace and peace,

Jim

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6 thoughts on “Christmas in No Man’s Land

  1. Hey Jim

    Thanks for this thoughtful reflection. Hope you are enjoying retirement!

    I love the Christmas truce story, and recently came across this three minute youtube ad done by the English company Sainsbury, as part of their Christmas marketing. Tells the story of the truce, and it’s quite good.

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=NWF2JBb1bvM

    Best, Craig

    Sent from my iPad

  2. Jim:

    I hope this finds you well.

    Being a student of history, I have read most of the books cited in your article, but I need to read the one about the Christmas truce. Most of the recent historians agree that the Great War was a huge mistake for Great Britain, the country never really recovered. It would have been better to have allowed the Kaiser to take continental Europe than to have the war which followed. WWI created the Soviet Union after all, and many other problems. Historians are also now viewing WW I and WW II as one conflict, much like we tend to view the Hundred Years War. In any event, the striking thing for me about the Great War is the way in which the soldiers in the trenches had nothing in common with their commanders or their political leaders or even their families at home, but everything in the world in common with the enemy in the other trench.

    We love and miss you.

    Larry

    • Larry:
      Always good to hear from you. I agree with all your comments on “The Great War.” One of the tragedies of it — which contributes directly to the Christmas story — is that they were all “Christian” nations fighting against other “Christian” nations. That’s one of the things the men in the trenches had in common. Another was the blindness of the leadership to the changes in warfare. Talk about fighting the last war! They kept thinking they could send the horse cavalry to a victory…which ended with thousands of dead horses in the mud with the dead and dying men. Really a ghastly affair…but then every war is.

      Hope to be there to serve at Met Min with the Monday morning guys. Let me know the next time you are headed this direction.

      Peace,

      Jim

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