The story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 has become well-known: During World War I, in the winter of 1914, on the battlefields of Flanders, the Allied Powers of England and France were locked in a fierce battle with the Germans.
The Allied Powers and the Central Powers were dug into the mud for miles as soldiers on both sides hunkered down into trenches six to eight feet deep. Men in gear with guns fought for their lives and perhaps the fate of humankind.
On Christmas Eve, though, spontaneously, German troops began decorating the area around their trenches for the holiday. They placed candles on trees and sang Christmas carols, including the best-loved German carol: “Stille Nacht.”
The Allied troops across the battlefield heard the strains in the silent night around them and responded by singing English carols. Moved by the celebration of the birth of Christ, the shots of the artillery fell completely silent.
Soldiers left their trenches, crossed “no man’s land,” – that land that between two enemies but unoccupied due to fear and uncertainty – meeting in the middle to shake hands, and exchange small gifts of whisky, jam, cigars, and chocolate.
According to the diary of a German who was there, an English soldier brought out a soccer ball and a good-natured match emerged right on the battlefield.
The truce that night allowed for soldiers to claim the bodies of recently-fallen brothers in order to give them a proper burial. Soldiers from both sides mourned the dead together and paid their respects. At one funeral in “no man’s land,” soldiers wearing opposing uniforms gathered and read words from the psalm:
“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures…Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
Unfortunately, the truce could not last.
British commanders eventually ordered their troops to resume firing at the enemy and after a few days of everyone wasting rounds of ammunition by shooting into the sky instead of at their new found friends in the opposing trenches, the war resumed for real.
The generals and military leaders of both the Central and Allied forces heard about the truce of Christmas Eve and vowed that no such truce would ever be allowed in the future so that in the subsequent years of the war on Christmas Eve, artillery bombardments were ordered to make sure there were no more silent nights on the battlefield and ultimately 20 million lives would be lost.
Today the Biblical account of the birth of Christ bears witness to the hard truth that the coming of Christmas does not bring the fullness of peace and healing the world hoped for. The silent night of Christmas Eve does not last.
Those of us who stood with soft candlelight illuminating our faces as we sung that beloved carol on Christmas Eve have experienced that the silent night doesn’t last. We have entered back into a world where peace is hard to come by, where the silence is shattered, where the world does not stop and give its total attention and adoration to the Christ child.
Today in the account from the gospel according to Matthew we hear that Jesus himself was born to be the fulfillment of Israel’s hope, the Messiah in the flesh, and the one foretold by the prophets but there is no time to celebrate.
There is no time to enjoy the gift of God among us for a first-time mother and father. Joseph is warned in a dream that the silent night cannot last. He is to take the child and his mother to Egypt because Herod is sending bombardments of destruction aimed at squelching this possible usurper to his throne and power.
For his part, Jesus is completely powerless. As an infant, God in the flesh must rely on his mother and foster-father to carry him, feed him, and protect him from the blood-thirsty Herod.
King Herod the Great, who was known as the “King of the Jews,” because he was a Hebrew set up by the Romans to rule his own people for them, killed three of his very own sons and one of his wives when he thought they might be plotting against him and seeking to take his power, causing Caesar Augustus, Herod’s Roman superior, to famously quip:
“It is better to be Herod’s hog, than his son,” alluding to the Jewish law of not eating, and consequently not killing, swine, but his ease at taking any life he saw as a threat, including his own children.
To order the murder of children two-years-and-younger in and around Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus and strangle a possible challenge to his authority was an obvious and, for him, insignificant act in the busy day of the ruthless Herod.
Biblical historians believe that as small as Bethlehem was in the first century, Herod’s army may have killed as many as twenty children in his raid attempting to eliminate Jesus, and for a thousand and a half years the church has commemorated and remembered these boys as the Holy Innocents – children who died as the first witnesses to Christ’s advent.
At Christmastime, when it seems we should be exclusively festive, we pause to remember these boys because God remembers all those who live and die tragically for no good reason, senselessly.
We remember the mothers and fathers of these boys and pray for all parents who lose their children. We give God thanks that in his mercy, God promises to redeem every life that is lost and bring redemption to the grief of his people.
Today we give God thanks that Love has come to us and God remembers every family that has lost a child, every family that is celebrating Christmas for the first time with an empty chair at the table, every family that has one of its members deployed and far away from home.
Herod’s murder of the infants of Bethlehem is part of the Christmas story reminds us that Jesus was born in order to die so that we all might be with God forever and be reunited with one another forever.
Because of God’s protection through Joseph and Mary, Jesus escapes Herod’s grasp and finds his way safely to Nazareth so that he can grow up to teach and heal and restore the world in light of God’s intentions. My guess is that the power-drunk Herod ordered the brutal slaying of these children and went to bed with a sick peacefulness to think he had eliminated the threat to his power.
And when Herod’s son – Herod Antipas – realized that his father had been fooled but he had a chance to eliminate Jesus in Jerusalem by finally cutting off the road to escape, driving Jesus into a corner, pinning Jesus down, and nailing him to a cross, he probably went to bed with a sick peacefulness to think he had really and definitely THIS time eliminated the threat to his power his father couldn’t.
But on Easter morning, like his father, Herod Antipas and all the forces of evil, murder, abuse, and darkness were confounded forever, because God’s song of life sung in Jesus brought him out of the trench dug in the mud, as the fate of humankind was secured in God’s favor.
The love that was born in Bethlehem was reborn to bring God’s presence to every town and city and place.
Christmas and the birth of Christ brings the joy of God-with-us, but we cannot forget the real sufferings of the innocent, the grief of the mourners, the continued abuse of children.
Today children are brutalized through trafficking and abuse and they live in fear of school shootings.
Our own Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service was founded in 1918 as a way to respond to the post-World War I needs of immigration and refugee resettlement. It set up a Welfare Department with an office for the “rehabilitation and placement of Lutheran refugees” and helped 522 refugees in its first year of operations.
Following the immediate aftermath of WWII, LIRS resettled 30,263 Displaced Persons from Germany and Eastern Europe, and subsequently over the course of the last 80 years, has resettled over a half a million immigrants from Hungary, Cuba, Uganda, Vietnam, Bosnia, Sudan, Burma, Tibet, Afghanistan and Iraq, helping women, men, and children escape violence and abuse and find a new home.
Christmas is the celebration that God has come to be with us.
God came in Christ as a refugee escaping for his life, from Bethlehem to Egypt, to Israel to Galilee, to Jerusalem to the cross, braving the danger, in order to save the life of all humankind.
God is still stepping into the dangerous places of this world. God steps into no-mans-land, that place between enemies that is unoccupied due to our fear and uncertainty.
God steps into the no-mans-land of the politics of our nation and the nations of the world intending to sing a song of peace that we would lay our weapons down and come out to shake hands, to sing together, to be gathered around the small but mighty gifts of bread and wine given for the forgiveness of our sin.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and Nazi-resistor wrote to the church,
“God has prepared for Himself one great song of praise throughout eternity, and those who enter the community of God join in this song. It is the song that the “morning stars sang together…It is the victory song of the children of Israel after passing through the Red Sea, the Magnificat of Mary after the annunciation, the song of Paul and Silas in the night of prison…and the song of the Lamb” It is the song of the heavenly fellowship.”
We are called to sing the song of Christ’s love.
Not only standing here singing the Christmas eve song of the silent night, forever in this place… because Christmas, after all is about the incarnation – God being in the world- and we are called to be in the world — but singing in our work, in our homes, among our friends, in a new year, in a new decade, singing the song of faith and trust in God’s protection and promise out among the world God loves.
We are called to sing love to power and chant down the Herods and the haters of this world, until no-mans-land is riddled with the weapons that have been thrown down for good and healing and wholeness have come to the lonely, the least, the last and the lost, and to all.
God is singing a song of peace into the world and he has enlisted us to sing in the choir, to put on the baptismal robe, to warm up our voice, to throw our heads back, to sing with gusto, in harmony, the song of Christ’s love which has come.
So together we sing:
Love has come, a light in the darkness!
Love explodes in the Bethlehem skies.
See, all heaven has come to proclaim it.
Hear how their song of joy arises:
Love! Love! Born unto you, a Savior!
Love! Love! Glory to God on high!
Love is born! Come share in the wonder.
Love is God now asleep in the hay.
See the glow in the eyes of His mother.
What is the name her heart is saying?
Love! Love! Love is the name she whispers.
Love! Love! Jesus, Immanuel.
Love has come, He never will leave us!
Love is life everlasting and free.
Love is Jesus within and among us.
Love is the peace our hearts are seeking.
Love! Love! Love is the gift of Christmas.
Love! Love! Praise to You, God on high!