623) Getting Together for Christmas

     One of the first things that the coming of Jesus did was that it brought people together.  When Joseph first heard the news of Mary’s out of wedlock pregnancy, he had decided to break off the engagement.  The angel’s message to Joseph of how God was going to work in their lives brought them back together.  Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, got together to discuss the ways God was working in both of their lives.  Shepherds and Wisemen, who had come to the knowledge of this special birth in very different ways, all gathered together with this holy family to worship the new born king.  And later, old Simeon and Anna were drawn to this child and his parents, bringing to them yet more special words from God.  The birth of Jesus brought many different people together.

     Even today this story of Jesus’ birth and the way we celebrate it is still bringing people together.  Most families try to get together sometime during the Christmas season, and if they cannot or will not get together, the separation is felt most keenly at this time.  Friends, neighbors, and co-workers gather; and, Christians the world over gather together at Christmas to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  After all, Jesus came to earth, the home that God created for us, in order to invite us to his home in heaven, that place beyond death where believers of every time and place will be gathered together by God for all eternity.

     There is something about the Christmas story that allows us to lighten up a bit, to be more open to others, to be more generous and helpful and forgiving.  At this time of year magazine articles, TV specials, and movies often include stories of people coming together, of being reconciled, or of going out of their way to help others.  This ‘spirit’ of Christmas comes from the example of God Himself who came to us on that first Christmas as a newborn infant, helpless and dependent; vulnerable to pain, rejection, and even death.   God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, not to overwhelm us with his power and might, but to win our hearts by his love.  If God in all his might and power can do that for us, with whom he has every reason and right to be angry; then perhaps we can gather together with each other in a spirit of peace and good will.

     Exactly one hundred years ago today, this spirit of ‘peace and good will’ brought some men together in a most unlikely setting.  It was 1914 in the terrible trenches at the front lines of the first World War.  British and German troops were dug into their miles long trenches across the rocky French countryside.  From those trenches they would attack and counter-attack, going back and forth over just a few miles of land, fighting viciously, oftentimes in hand to hand combat.  Month after month, tens of thousands of young men would die, with neither army making any progress.  The insanity was just beginning, and would go on for four long years.

     It was Christmas morning.  In the rows of trenches on both sides, cold and shivering men thought about their families back home.  Between the trenches lay a barren no-man’s land, a zone of craters and shattered trees.  It was an area where anything that moved was instantly fired upon.  So narrow was the strip that whenever there was a lull in the roar of guns, each side could hear the clanging of cooking gear from the other side.  There was such a lull on Christmas morning because the two sides had agreed to a cease fire, and in the early morning hours all was quiet.

      It was still dark, and the British soldier on guard heard a different kind of sound drifting across the no-man’s land.  It was a sound he was not used to hearing at the front.  Over in the other trench, in the middle of this Holy Night, a German soldier was singing.  ‘Stille nacht, heilige nacht,’, he sung.  The British soldier did not know German, but easily recognized the tune of ‘Silent Night.’  He began to hum along with the melody.  Then, louder, he chimed in with English words, thus singing an unusual duet with his enemy beyond the barbed-wire.

     “Heilige nacht…  Holy Night;” on and on they sang, neither one wanting to stop.  Before long, a second British soldier crawled to the guard station and joined in.  Soon there were others on both sides, picking up on the song, blending their rough voices across the devastated land.  Then, the Germans started with a second carol, “Oh Tannenbaum,” to which the British replied with, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”  On and on the singing went.  Then, one of the German soldiers hoisted over the sandbags a ragged evergreen tree, with lighted candles on the branches.  As the dawn broke on Christmas day, signs appeared on both sides, in two languages, saying “Merry Christmas.”

     Then, pulled by a force stronger than fear, one of the soldiers slowly crawled out of the trench, unarmed and carrying a white flag.  He stepped up and out into no-man’s land and walked toward the center.  No one fired.  One by one, other soldiers left their guns and ventured out.  First, it was only a few, and then more, until dozens of British and German soldiers met together in the first light of Christmas day.  They brought out photographs of families and wives and girlfriends.  They exchanged candy and cigarettes.  Someone threw out a soccer ball, and several of the men played a little game of it on a few yards of crater-free ground.

     Later on that morning a high ranking officer on one of the sides discovered the unusual gathering and ordered his men back to the trenches, and the unusual Christmas gathering was over.  In a few days, the guns were blasting away again.  But for those men who came out of the trenches that Christmas day, it could never be the same again.  The enemy was no longer an impersonal, faceless army.  Now, the soldiers could picture in their mind an acquaintance with whom they had shared a candy bar or played a game of soccer.  Now, when those men looked down the barrels of their guns at the opposition, they also saw the smiling faces of those whose family pictures were shared on that silent holy day.  Those two groups of men could not have been more divided.  In the days before and after they were killing each other.  But for a few hours, the birth of Jesus brought those weary soldiers together, and they had a taste of the peace and good will that the Christ child meant to bring.

     One of the accounts of this story ends with these words:  “That war, as history tragically records, destroyed almost an entire generation of young men on both sides.  But there was an indelible memory in the minds of those who lived to recall that Christmas at the front lines; the memory of a few hours when their master was not King or Kaiser, but the Prince of Peace.”

     What a Savior!  And what a way for him to come, as a baby, to soften our hard hearts with a story that can be loved by everyone.  Once again this year, that birth brings people together, as it has always done, and will do for all eternity.

British and German troops meeting in No Man's Land, Christmas 1914.

British and German troops mingle in No-Mans Land, Christmas 1914

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Every year, Sainsbury’s, Britain’s third-largest supermarket chain, airs a special Christmas ad.  While the ads are often memorable, this year’s went viral as soon as it appeared.   The ad reinacts that memorable Christmas Truce of 1914, and it is tremendous.  You will want to view it at:

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

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Luke 2:8-14  —  And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

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