He breathed, inhaling the strange concoction of gunpowder, sweat, and crisp, snowy air. No-man’s land, the short gap that stretched between thirty miles of trenches, began only a few inches from his head and served as a constant reminder that he dare not move carelessly or he’d never move again at all.
After twenty-one weeks of fighting in the trenches of France, Frank Richards was all-too-familiar with the sounds of gunfire and shouting, broken only occasionally by an outburst of laughter—a temporary lifting of the spirit reminding him that life was not always like this and that one day this hellish passing of the hours and days might be a distant memory.
On Christmas Eve in 1914, I imagine with a tinge of irony, Frank painted “Merry Christmas” on a plank of wood and thrust it into the dirt as a sign for both friend and foe. To his surprise, his German foes wrote a sign of their own: “you no fight we no fight”, it read in charming and broken English. The gunfire slowly subsided as promised, replaced by the frighteningly unfamiliar sound of silence. Before long another unusual sound arose: singing.
“Stille Nacht! Heil’ge Nacht!
Alles schläft; einsam wacht”
Recognizing the familiar tune, the British joined in the chorus:
“Radiant beams from thy holy face
At the dawn of redeeming grace”
And that’s when a candle-covered Christmas tree suddenly appeared across the narrow stretch of land.
Now known as the ‘Christmas Truce’, thousands of soldiers climbed out of their respective trenches and stood as peers for a brief time, sojourners in the ‘no-man’s land’. It makes sense when I stop to think about it: the arrival of the Prince of Peace heralds the good news that there’s a new normal, a new way to be human.
What Richards and his foes-turned-brothers remembered on that Christmas Eve, even if only for one night, was that they had an awful lot in common in this broken world of ours. They, like us, were in this mess together. Maybe they knew it, and maybe they didn’t, but I like to believe that Frank and his brothers-in-arms took to heart a message first delivered to a group of shepherds nearly two thousand years earlier: “Do not be afraid… glory to God and on earth, peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
I’d like to believe that those men at the front lines of an ugly war came to realize that there is more to life than the lines we draw—or dig—in the dirt. As they shared their cigarettes, shared photos of their families back home, and kicked a soccer ball around a battle-worn field in France, I’d like to believe that they worshiped Jesus in a way that neither they nor we can even begin to understand. And they modeled for us, of all things, what it means to be the Church.
The simple fact is that we live in a divided world. We live in a culture that reduces our very existence into categories, marketing interest groups, and demographics. Left to these societal myths we become nothing more than nameless faces on the front lines of a war we didn’t want: a war on what it means to be human. In this war we’re divided within ourselves, from each other, and most importantly, from our maker. Yet, for those of us that wish to be known as “Christian,” we’re told to believe in One Body, One Church, One God. In a culture of competition, we’re to become co-laborers. In a life of compartmentalization, we’re to become complete. We are foes crossing trenches, now singing ‘Silent Night’ as family. Pausing for a moment to remember what it means to be truly human: to worship.
At its’ best, Christian worship is always a ‘Christmas Truce’ of sorts, an act of submission wherein we cross the trenches of our divided world and remember that we are whole, together, and wholly His. As those who are in Christ, God hasn’t give us an escape hatch from humanity but a new, redemptive way to be human. What was fractured and broken can now finally be whole—deeply and beautifully human—body, soul, mind and strength.
While the “Christmas Truce” of 1914 led soldiers to cross trenches in remembrance of Christ—an act of armistice in open defiance of their enemy empires—as we gather in Christian worship, we declare a Truce of the Christ-Mass in its own right, proclaiming to the empires of our day: “It is finished!”
It is an announcement never intended to be heard only in our believing, in the well-behaved but lonely world of the private intellectual faith. Nor even in our noisy public bellowing. It is also seen in our becoming—in all the little things that make us human. It is known, deeply, in our belonging—in all the little things that bring us together. All of these little things are impossible without the help of a person who, though big, took it upon himself to be small for our sake: the Prince of Peace and Lord of Lords and yet the suffering servant who came humbly into our little corner of the Universe.
This is who He was, who He is, and who He always will be.
And this is what we celebrate every year.
Sing. Sing unashamedly—even in this world in love with war and strife—of the Prince of Peace.
“Do not be afraid… glory to God and on earth, peace to those on whom his favor rests.”