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As they reclined in their trenches, each man began to speculate about the activities of loved ones back home. "My parents are just finishing a toast to my health," a lad from Liverpool said slowly.
"I can almost hear the church bells," a stout man from London said wistfully. "My whole family will soon be walking out of the door to hear a concert of the boys choir at the cathedral."
The men sat silently for several minutes before a thin soldier from Kent looked up with tears in his eyes. "This is eerie...but I can almost hear the choir singing."
"So can I," said another puzzled voice. "I think there is music coming from the other side."
All the men scrambled to the edge of the trench and cocked their ears. What they heard was a few sturdy German voices singing Martin Luther's Christmas song:
To bear good news to everyone;
Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To all the world, and gladly sing.
When the hymn was finished, the English soldiers sat in
silence. Then a large man with a powerful voice broke into "God
Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." A dozen voices joined..."Let nothing
you dismay." Then more and more..."Remember Christ our Savior
was born on Christmas Day." By the time the carol was finished,
the entire regiment was singing.
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet, the words repeat
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.(2)
In some places, the spontaneous truce continued the next day
as neither side was willing to fire the first shot. But finally,
with the arrival of fresh troops who had not experienced the
remarkable interlude of Christmas peace and the orders of the
High Commands of both armies saying that any further "informal
understandings" with the enemy would be punishable as treason,
the cannon once again boomed across no-man's land and the rifles
were again heard in the trenches.
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men."
Tonight, from Kabul to Kanduhar, from the caves of Tora Bora to the streets of
Bethlehem, mothers wail and children weep because the peace of
Christmas, 2001, what there is of it, is so fragile and fleeting.
One of my friends e-mailed new lyrics to "O Little Town of
Bethlehem" last night:
Above thy deep and restless sleep, a missile glideth by.
And over dark streets soundeth the mortar's deadly roar
While children weep in shallow sleep for friends who are no more.
How silently, how silently their hope has gone away.
Perhaps we should not be surprised. After all, the gospel account of that blessed birth is surrounded by reference to a ruthless Roman Caesar and a vicious paranoid puppet king who orders the murder of baby boys.
December 28, 1914. The fighting had resumed. But for many in the trenches, it was now different. The enemy was no longer a nameless, faceless foe, but a friendly fellow who played soccer, ate chocolate, and carried a tattered picture of a pretty young wife and two blond-headed boys wanting their papa to come home. How do you casually kill someone like that? You don't.
God is not dead nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, goodwill to men.
Some years ago, just before Christmas at Princeton Seminary,
a group of students and their families gathered in the chapel for
evening devotions - carols, prayers, and scripture lessons. The
high point of the service, of course, was the reading of those
familiar words from Luke's gospel describing the decree of Caesar
Augustus, the journey of Mary and Joseph, the wonder of the
shepherds, the song of the angels. The lesson was read by Glenn
Perica who is now the Pastor at Central Church in Longmont,
Colorado but back then was simply a second-career seminarian who
had come to school with his young family. As Glenn read, his
little boy sat quietly at his feet, a study in single-minded
concentration...not on the text, but on the task of firmly tying
together his Daddy's shoelaces.(4) What a parable! The angels
proclaim "Peace on Earth," but as we try to share that good news
of great joy...even with enemy soldiers...we trip over our own
feet. The miracle of Christmas is that God was willing to come
in human flesh and join us in our stumbling estate.
1. William R. White, Stories for the Journey, (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988), pp. 119-121
2. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
3. Don Hinchey, Littleton, CO
4. Theo Gill, "Notes from the Periphery", Monday Morning, 12/18/89