Among the many monuments and military cemeteries in Belgium’s Forrests is a large timber cross set in a concrete base, erected there a mere 15 years ago. It commemorates the so-called “Christmas Truce” of 1914. Since June of this year, there have been remembrances of various sorts all around Europe to mark the centennial of the start of World War I, “the Great War” as it came to be called, the war that the newly elected Pope Benedict XV labelled “the suicide of European civilization,” the war that pretty much ruined everything for the rest of the 20th century.
But, on Christmas Eve 100 years ago, the war was just a few months old. Each side still expected a fairly quick victory, and the two sides did not yet quite hate each other with the ferocity that four years of pointless, non-stop killing would inspire. Already, however, Western Europe had been divided from north to south, from Belgium’s Channel coast to the Swiss Border, by a network of trenches, no more than 60 yards apart in some places, separated by a muddy “No Man’s Land,” littered with rotting corpses. The newly elected Pope Benedict XV’s appeal for a Christmas cease-fire had been roundly rebuffed by the belligerents. Yet, as Christmas approached and the Imperial German government began transporting thousands of Christmas trees to the soldiers at the front, more and more unofficial – and certainly unapproved – incidents of fraternization started to occur across the trenches. Then, on Christmas Eve, as the German soldiers lit the candles on their little Christmas trees and sang Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht in their trenches, men from both sides started serenading each other. (Then as now, Silent Night was as familiar in French and English as in its original German.) Soon the soldiers were meeting each other in “No Man’s Land,” singing, exchanging food, even playing soccer together, and taking time to bury their dead – together. At dawn on Christmas morning, recalled one British soldier, “No Man’s Land was full of clusters … of khaki and gray … pleasantly chatting together.”
The 1914 Christmas Truce was the only one of its kind in the 20th century. Never formally proclaimed and never given any official approval, it just happened spontaneously from among the ranks of ordinary soldiers, who were emboldened by the very idea of Christmas to do what more prominent and powerful people never dreamed of doing.
That’s what Christmas can do to people. Think of that great Christmas icon, Kris Kringle, from my favorite Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street. He persuaded all sorts of prominent and powerful people (including even Mr. Macy and Mr. Gimbel) to believe in him and be reconciled with one another. And he did that, not in some super-human way, but simply by doing the sorts of things those other people would never have thought of doing on their own, had it not been for him.
Eighteen years after the “Christmas Truce,” midway through another world war, which the first one had made almost inevitable, another Pope, Pius XII, addressed a Christmas Eve radio message to a war-torn world: “As the Holy Christmas Season comes round each year, the message of Jesus, Who is light in the midst of darkness, echoes once more from the crib of Bethlehem … It … lights up with heavenly truth a world that is plunged in darkness by fatal errors. … It promises mercy, love, peace to the countless hosts of those in suffering and tribulation who see their happiness shattered and their efforts broken in the tempestuous strife and hate of our stormy days.”
Of course, we all want our Christmases to be perfect. That perfect Christmas-card family picture is one way of saying to the world (and maybe reassuring ourselves) that everything is really OK. But in fact Christmas is often celebrated in less than optimal conditions – by those (like Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem) who are homeless and have only strangers for company, by the lonely and those who mourn, by the sick in hospitals, by refugees and immigrants far from home (like Mary and Joseph in Egypt), and - as has so often been the case these past 100 years (including. for citizens of our own country, now these past 14 years) - by soldiers and nations at war.
We’re all familiar with some version of the saying – “90% of life is showing up.” That’s what God did on Christmas. He showed up “in the tempestuous strife and hate of our stormy days.” He showed up in a somewhat out-of-the-way place, under the less than optimal conditions so often experienced - then as now - by poor immigrants and refugees and with hardly anyone else taking any notice at all.
But God didn't just show up; he stayed with us for the long haul - here in his Church! He “shrouded” himself – as Paulist founder Isaac Hecker said, preaching on Christmas in 1870 – “in our common humanity,” becoming “our brother whom we can approach with feelings of confidence and affection.” And that's what makes it possible for us, as his Church, to show up ourselves, “in the tempestuous strife and hate of our stormy days,” despite whatever obstacles we've put in God's way, to continue what he started on Christmas - this Christmas, this year, and every year – uniting heaven and earth, spanning space and time, past, present, and future in one communion of saints, one universal network of salvation in Christ.
The God who became incarnate in Jesus is inviting us this Christmas to take seriously his coming into our world – to use a phrase from Pope Francis, to be “convinced from personal experience that it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him.” Taking seriously Christ’s coming into our world means making ours as well the commitment that he himself made to us and to our world on Christmas. He invites us to overcome whatever barriers remain between us, between young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick, native and immigrant, friend and foe.
We celebrate tonight what we profess every Sunday all the year round: that the Only begotten Son of God came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man. Tonight, we kneel when we say those words, to solemnize what we celebrate, but we say those words all year round. The Christmas story is our story – all year round. It’s the story of God showing up and inviting us into a new relationship with him and with one another.
As Saint Paul just told us in his letter to Titus: The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.
So - in the words of one almost forgotten World War I poet [Frederick Niven (1878-1944)] -
God speed the time when every day
Shall be as Christmas Day.
Homily for Christmas Midnight Mass, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 25, 2014.