For many, it is difficult to imagine the unspeakable horrors of war. The bitter stench of cordite, explosive rending of earth, air, and sea; and indiscriminate destruction of all that would stand in the way of victory are just the beginning. There is the inconsolable and heart-wrenching ache of homesickness. There are the inescapable miseries of Spartan living and the tempestuous wrath of nature. There is an arrogant fury, fueled by an illusory sense of righteousness that drives combatants to commit unspeakable acts. There are the lies, manipulations, and raw determination of the brutal and ruthless powers on both sides of the conflict. Finally, there is the bare and abject fear that shivers through the veins of all who witness its atrocities. While the horrors of war are experienced to some extent by all, they are disproportionately reflected in the blank faces of the young–for it is most often they who must bear the burden of orders to fight and kill, suffer, or die.
While the costs of war are many, there is little doubt that its highest wages are paid through the wholesale slaughter of humanity. Fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, friends and neighbors; all, regardless of guilt or innocence, are ground under the wheels of martial advancement. Many lose their homes and livelihoods. Many must live the remainder of their lives with debilitating injuries of mind, body, and soul. And many will die. But in the end, all suffer horribly. It is this carnage, the wanton waste of human blood, muscle, organ, and bone–indeed, the callous disregard of Life itself, that is the greatest transgression of war.
In our modern world of instant communication and artificial imagery, it is difficult to imagine how thousands of young men must have felt, just over 100 years ago in 1914. At that time, what was thought to be “The War to End All Wars” (World War I) was being waged on the front lines between France and Germany. While most of the world lay warm in their beds on that Christmas Eve, two determined armies huddled miserably in muddy trenches, facing one another across a dark and battered stretch of no-man’s land. Much as pawns in a violent game of chess, these men were trapped between a wet and bitterly cold winter and the relentless grinding of their countries’ military machines. But in a moment of silence, just when the hour must have seemed darkest, a Christmas Miracle occurred. Despite incredible odds and the stubborn efforts of the leaders on both sides to stop it, The Spirit of Peace prevailed.
According to most accounts, the uncertain cease-fire began with a song. German soldiers, apparently overcome by homesickness, began singing Christmas carols. Allied soldiers on the other side of the lines, fearing a trick of some kind, listened and watched with surprise and suspicion. Before too long however, someone on their side joined in. Others soon followed and it wasn’t long before voices rose on both sides of the trenches. One can scarcely imagine the surreal nature of that moment, for here were two bitterly opposed armies that had been wounding and killing each other for months. Now, instead of destroying each other in the cold darkness, each side was singing the same song in its own language. Somehow, and in some miraculous way, these men were connecting to a sense of something–something that was quickly bridging the gap created by the broken bodies of their fallen comrades, the torn earth, and the rigid doctrines that seemed to separate them.
As the night progressed and Christmas dawned the next day, both sides of the conflict came together in a strange new way. Enemies looked directly into each others’ faces, shook hands, and respected one another as equals. Each came to understood that his enemy was a human being, much the same as he was–and that each had his own hopes and dreams, a home, and family. These men, wearing different uniforms, speaking different languages, and representing violently opposing views, found a way to lay down their arms and share something that transcended their differences. For at least a few hours it seems, humanity returned to the front lines. All that day, after burying and honoring the dead on both sides, the men shared stories, food, and photos of home. They played soccer and traded keepsakes. They laughed. They sang. Together, in the midst of a war, they found a way to celebrate the season that reminds us that Love and Peace are among the most cherished of all things to blessed with in this life.
Unfortunately, as Christmas passed and the glowing spirit of this spontaneous armistice faded away, the ugliness of war returned. The peaceful space that had briefly existed between to armies was torn asunder. It wasn’t long before the crack of small arms fire, thud of artillery, and screams of the dying drowned out the echoes of songs and joyful laughter–but the fact that, for a time at least, songs and laughter could be heard at all among the trenches on that cold, dark Christmas Eve was clearly a miracle. And it’s one that should always be remembered.
As we look forward to spending this Holiday Season with our own friends and loved ones, perhaps we may find a moment to reflect on this event and look within. Perhaps we may find a way to overcome some of our own prejudices, the ones that make us feel so different and separate from other human beings. Instead of seeing only differences and gaps to be bridged between us, perhaps we may begin to see and embrace our commonalities–that is, the things that we share, and begin to accept all fellow beings as our brothers and sisters. While we may have been taught to see unfamiliar beliefs, geo-political borders, and cultural traditions as differences to resolve or challenges to be overcome, are they not simply opportunities to learn fresh, new ways of experiencing our beautiful world? And what if we were to begin learning to accept them as such?
If human beings were always able to seek common ground and respect one another as individuals, perhaps conflicts like those surrounding the Christmas Armistice of 1914 would never again be necessary. I, for one, know that it can be done. After all, if the power of a Season and a song stopped a war once, it can certainly do so again!
May all the Joy, Wonder, and Peace of the Holiday Season be yours–not just today, but always.
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