And in despair I bowed my head; "There is no peace on earth," I said; "For hate is strong, And mocks the song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"*
An extraordinary Christmas story from World War 1 tells of a Christmas Eve truce forged by soldiers on opposite sides of the war. Taken from several different sources, including letters written home by soldiers involved, the story goes that on Christmas Eve in 1914, British troops heard German troops across a field singing Christmas Carols. The Smithsonian account writes that “The first signs that something strange was happening occurred on Christmas Eve. At 8:30 p.m. an officer of the Royal Irish Rifles reported to headquarters: ‘Germans have illuminated their trenches, are singing songs and wishing us a Happy Xmas. Compliments are being exchanged but am nevertheless taking all military precautions.’”
Another account, written by Private Frederick Heath gives this account of the night: “All down our line of trenches there came to our ears a greeting unique in war: ‘English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!’”
“Come out, English soldier; come out here to us.’ For some little time we were cautious, and did not even answer. Officers, fearing treachery, ordered the men to be silent. But up and down our line one heard the men answering that Christmas greeting from the enemy. How could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even though we might be at each other’s throats immediately afterwards? So we kept up a running conversation with the Germans, all the while our hands ready on our rifles. Blood and peace, enmity and fraternity—war’s most amazing paradox. The night wore on to dawn—a night made easier by songs from the German trenches, the pipings of piccolos and from our broad lines laughter and Christmas carols. Not a shot was fired.”
Christmas 2014, one hundred years after the truce, a British company created an advertisement based on the event. The video poignantly shows a reenactment of the Christmas Truce brought on by hearing enemy troops sing Christmas Carols on a cold, weary and war-torn night.
A strange and extraordinary peace. The next day, fighting resumed and commanders sitting safely inside their plush offices were none too happy about the reports that came out of the night. Nevertheless, for a few hours there was peace in the midst of war.
The ad has been viewed 23 million times, an indication of how desperately we long for these stories of peace in the midst of war. No matter how contrary we are, as humans we come to points where we are aching for peace. Whether it is peace in our families or peace in our friendships, whether it is peace in politics or in ideas, we come to places of weary cynicism. Is there nothing that can help us forge peace? Is there any hope for humanity when we can barely stand our neighbors, let alone the person on the other side of the globe or the opposite end of the political spectrum?
We are hungry and thirsty for these kind of stories, for knowing that there is hope for peace in the midst of war, there is hope for peace in families and marriages, hope for peace in church conflicts and disagreements, hope for peace in our own hearts.
Into this world that longs for peace came a Savior. A baby – small, unassuming, vulnerable. Hardly a threat save to an insecure demagogue, who so feared losing his kingdom that he had every male child under two years old killed. A small baby who came into a world of occupation and displacement, a world of outside rulers and internal threats. A baby, prophesied to be the Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace. Is it any wonder that so many years after the miraculous birth of the Prince of Peace, a cautious peace was forged in the middle of a battlefield?
This second week in Advent, in this season of waiting, we wait in peace. May our hearts turn with longing to the only one who can create lasting peace. May our hearts turn to the one who enters gladly into our lives, not only during the Christmas season, but every day that we will have him. God incarnate, long expected Jesus, born to set his people free.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men."*
*Words are from the poem Christmas Bells by Henry Wadworth Longfellow created into the song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.