Christmas Eve 2014
It’s one of those peculiarities about the passage of time – that although, in my mind, this year seems to have sped by quicker than ever – it also feels an age since I sat happily working through my pile of summer reading.
Of all the books that I read, one thing that has stuck in my mind is Jeremy Paxman’s evocative description of the Christmas Truce of 1914 – in his book “Great Britain’s Great War”.
He describes the situation, 5 months into the First World War – with the armies stranded in their trenches, often only a few dozen yards apart, and an expectation that little would change until the following Spring.
Pope Benedict XV proposed that there should be a “Truce of God” to honour the feast of Christmas – but this faltered, partly because for the Russian Army Christmas would not be celebrated until 6th January. Senior British Officers were said to be relieved by this rejection and one General Sir Horrace Smith-Dorrien issued an order specifically banning “unofficial armistices and the exchange of tobacco or other comforts.” There was some confusion, then, in the British trenches when, on 23rd December, lights appeared on the horizon – until it became clear that German troops had erected Christmas Trees.
What followed seems to have been a series of uncoordinated and unpremeditated truces along the front. English soldiers heard strains of “Stille Nacht” and “O Tannenbaum” and responded with their own English songs – sacred and otherwise!
And so, on Christmas Eve, 100 years ago, soldiers from both sides agreed to rendezvous in no-man’s land and German cigars were exchanged for vegetable stew and Capstan cigarettes. Plum puddings were given for sauerkraut, biscuits for coffee, and yet more cigarettes for schnapps.
An extract from Paxman’s own description of that remarkable encounter:
Men who a day or so earlier would have liked nothing more than to put a bullet in the man beside them now stood showing off photographs of their families, girlfriends or children.
In some sections … there were even shared Christmas dinners. There are several accounts of junior officers also climbing out [of the trenches] to shake hands and exchange gifts with their German opposite numbers.
The weather had changed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day a sharp frost froze the mud and glazed the ground with white. The sky was clear and blue” ‘It was just the sort of day for peace to be declared”, thought one lieutenant in the Warwickshire Regiment, ‘but no, it was a nice, fine day – that was all.’
And, with a prearranged series of shots into the air
and the firing of a signal flare,
the peace ended and the killing resumed.”
So, in retrospect, it seems little had changed. The Christmas Truce was just a brief interlude in a long and bloody war. It would not be repeated in 1915 or the years which followed.
And yet, for some of those involved, their perspective certainly had changed.
The trenches opposite were no longer filled with faceless henchmen – but with fathers, younger brothers, sons – with young men just like themselves. And for a while, in places soldiers on both sides refused to fight those with whom they had chatted, shared food, played football.
As Paxman sums up:
“There is nothing normal about living in a hole and trying to kill your neighbours. The Christmas Truce of 1914 had been proof of a more natural human instinct – a triumph of the human spirit over those brass hats who thought of soldiers as expendable automatons.”
A triumph of the human spirit – a rediscovery, perhaps, in that unreal situation of what it truly means to be human.
That same discovery, I suggest, is at the heart of the Christmas story – and one which is urgently needed in the far from peaceful world that we inhabit today.
Tonight, we recall the Word made flesh –
the unimaginable reality of God taking on and inhabiting our human nature. It’s a story we know so well – and yet one which is still to be fully worked out.
As we look around us, it’s easy to feel that – as with the Christmas Truce of 1914 – nothing’s really changed: Violence still trumps peace in the daily headlines. In this past year we’ve seen a worrying resurgence of nationalism – at home and abroad. Religious extremism and political corruption are as rampant as ever.
Faced with such a backdrop, it’s easy for us to want to retreat into a kind of Christmas haze – and put all that out of mind for a couple of days – to enjoy a kind of temporary truce with the world around us.
And yet, tonight we are called to do more than that.
We are challenged to comprehend the enormity of God’s willingness to become like us – we are challenged to reassess what it means to be human.
What is revealed to us tonight, and every Christmas, is that to be fully human is to be like God – that we, who are made in the image of God, share a common humanity that is remarkable.
And if our shared human existence now feels very far from being God-like or remarkable – then something is clearly wrong with the way in which we are living it.
So much suffering in our world seems to be caused by an inability, or perhaps an unwillingness, to recognise as fellow beings those who are different – whether by creed, appearance, culture or whatever barriers we chose to erect. The stories of abuse, of torture, of persecution, are surely only possible become some individuals decide that their lives are worth more than certain other peoples’.
Yet the Word made flesh came to embrace all humanity – and unless and until all of humanity is willing to do the same, the message of Christmas is unfulfilled.
None of us, individually, can make that happen – but we can begin, in small ways, to change perceptions – just as for many the experience of the 1914 truce did.
We can at least persist in asking the thorny questions:
As children of God – as brothers and sisters in a common human race – how should we shape international politics in the 21st century?
In our own country, how should we manage the effects of a shrinking public purse?
In our own communities – how will we deal with those who have messed up – and need a hand to start again?
How will we deal with those who are messed up – through self-abuse, or by the effects of other people’s actions?
How will we ensure that all people are able to live and die with proper human dignity?
None of these are easy questions to answer, but perhaps the legacy of the Christmas Truce of 1914 – and the purpose of our annual celebration of the birth of a child in Bethlehem is to make us question, to sharpen our thinking and to learn again how rich and precious this human existence is.
In a few days’ time – although there will be no signal flare – there will be clear indications that it is time to get back to normality – to leave the Christmas glow behind.
Let’s not be too ready to fall back, however, to where we were before:
let us pray that by entering once more into the mystery and wonder of Christmas our perceptions may be heightened and changed, and that we may enter the new year resolved that neither we, nor others, should live lives that are less than fully human.
Christ humbled himself to share our humanity, so that we might come to share his divine life.
May we go forward then, charged with his life and grace, to continue his work of redeeming love.