The 1900’s, the final century of the recent millennium, brought unprecedented possibility and promise. The children of those 100 years would know more change than those of the 1,000 years before; change which has continued to increase exponentially since.
Advances in medicine, science, and industry would extend human life, open a dialogue among the peoples of the earth, and lift humanity into the vast reaches of space.
But these hardly seemed like possibilities as the Christmas of 1914 drew near. The nations of Europe were at war. Anxious to expand and defend their borders, these nations summoned their best and brightest to the battlefront. And their young men answered by the millions. With hardly a backward glance, the promise of youth gave itself to the aggression known as the Great War, now known as World War 1.
A 19-year-old German boy left his job in London to enlist in the German army. English boys working and studying in Hamburg and Paris returned to London to put on uniforms and to fire upon those they had called friends.
A little paybook including a last will and testament was carried by each British soldier. These little paybooks were collected by the thousands from the bodies of young boys, many bearing the words, “I leave everything to my mother.”
Given the technologies of the new century, field commanders quickly realized that digging was the only way to survive the sweep of machine-gun fire. The German army had marched across Belgium before being stopped. Some sixty yards away, British, French, and Belgian troops languished in trenches infested with rats and lice; pelted with freezing rain and shrapnel. As temperatures dropped, disease rose. Snipers picked off those who raised their heads. So, in a war but four months old, each side was losing thousands a day, both to bullets and to the silent, common enemy that was influenza. By war’s end, over 10 million would perish.
Between those opposing trenches was an area about the width of a football field: an area known as “No Man’s Land.” Littered with barbed wire and frozen corpses, it was a sobering reminder to young men of what the future might bring.
Not surprisingly, most of the soldiers were religious; and many were Christian. So, on Sundays, communion was often passed through the trenches on both sides, sometimes to the sound of church bells ringing in nearby villages. The occasional hymn was sung, and youthful voices were heard across enemy lines.
By December, hopes for a quick resolution had faded. As the soldiers contemplated their desperate situation, nights grew long and all hearts yearned for peace.
It was on December 23rd that a group of German soldiers quietly moved to the ruins of a bombed-out monastery to hold their Christmas service. As the hours passed, a few Christmas trees, Tannenbaums as they were called, began to appear along the German fortifications, their tiny candles flickering in the night.
Across the way, British soldiers, singing the carols of their youth, were drawn to the lights of the Tannenbaums and as the hours passed, more and more heads peeked over sandbags to the wonder of what had become thousands of Tannenbaums glowing like proverbial Christmas stars.
It’s reported that a Lieutenant Sir Edward Hulse would “assault” the enemy with music. “We are going to give the enemy every conceivable song,” he wrote in a letter to his mother. And the Germans responded in kind and so it was that the cold air rang with everything from “Good King Wenceslas” to “Auld Lang Syne,” glad tidings offered from the hearts of men bound by the bond of Christmas, glad tidings which would continue for two days.
Further down the line, a German violinist stood atop his parapet, framed against the skeletons of bare trees and shattered fortifications. From this desolate landscape, his cold fingers conveyed the poignant beauty of Handel’s Largo.
It was a British war correspondent who reported that the soldiers heard the clear voice of Victor Granier of the Paris Opera rising with a beloved French carol, O Holy Night.
This was the setting. And it was in this setting that two British officers ventured over to the German line and, against orders, arranged a Christmas truce. Now, this negotiation was really more of formality for up and down the trenches, men from both sides already had begun crossing the line to share in the celebration.
A German officer known only as Thomas gave Lieutenant Hulse a Christmas gift - a Victoria cross and letter which had belonged to an English captain. Lieutenant Hulse responded by giving the German officer his silk scarf.
And so it continued until sunrise on Christmas morning revealed men from both trenches standing in that No Man’s Land, side by side, burying their fallen brothers.
Men who had shot at each other only days before gathered in a sacred service. Nineteen-year-old Arthur Pelham-Burn, who hoped to study for the ministry after the war ended, recorded: “Yes, I think it is a sight one will never see again.”
Prayers were offered, and the twenty-third Psalm was read:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures: he leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul: he leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for You are with me; Your rod and staff comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
And so it was that whatever the spirit of Christmas had been before that hour, it had become, above all, the spirit of hope, of peace.
As the Christmas of 1914 drew to a close, soldiers who had sung together, played together, and prayed together, returned to their trenches. One imagines that they must have felt reluctant to let what had served as a common and sacred ground become that No Man’s Land again. Perhaps it was from such a reluctance that a lone voice floated across those few yards of earth as the darkness fell; a lone voice which was joined by another voice, and then another and then another. It soon seemed that the whole world was singing.
Peace is not an exclusive spirit reserved for Christians, but a universal spirit that has been (that can be) touched, awakened and realized among people of all faiths, people of all eras, people of all geographies.
And I offer this story as a vehicle for the touching, awakening and realizing of the spirit that calls us to make that courageous trek into that No Man’s Land that we might, at long last, become available to each other’s humanity and start again.
Peace calls us to make that courageous trek into that No Man’s Land that would divide us by politic, into that No Man’s Land that would divide us by race, into that No Man’s Land that would divide us by religion, that we might, at long last, become available to each other’s humanity and begin again.
Peace calls us to make that courageous trek into that No Man’s Land that would divide us by age, into that No Man’s Land that would divide us by culture, into that No Man’s Land that would divide us by lifestyle, that we might, at long last, become available to each other’s humanity and begin again.
Peace calls us to make that courageous trek, that unknowable trek, that vulnerable trek, that inspired trek, that powerful trek into that No Man’s Land that would divide us by any and all of our myriad imagined ways, that we might, at long last, become available to each other’s humanity and begin again.
And as we stand in that No Man’s Land that would divide us – whether by politic, race, religion; whether by age, culture, lifestyle – as we stand in that No Man’s Land, side by side, burying the fallen brothers of our lesser ways, we feel the pull of an old order that would have us retreat to the comforts of our respective trenches (and isn’t that the way of change – an old order that would have us retreat to the comforts of our respective trenches).