I’m not really sure how it happened, but it’s almost Christmas Eve. As a pastor, you would think my focus would be on preparing for the birth of the child of peace, but my preparations have been slowed by just how tired I feel. This year has come with its griefs, and I am especially heartbroken about the realities of war across the world. As I catch a glimpse of the numerous nativity scenes, there’s one in particular that has stuck with me, and it’s in Bethlehem. Present in the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in the West Bank is a scene with the usual characters, but this one is different. Here the baby Jesus lies among rubble, wrapped in a Palestinian keffiyeh. It’s a powerful image, one not too far removed from the story we know so well.
Christmas eve approaches, and many wonder how the promises of Christmas are found in a time of war. After all, Palestinian leaders of Christian denominations have decided to cancel public celebrations of Christmas this year. Because how could we ever hope to celebrate Christmas amid war? Well, somehow, 109 years ago, a celebration did occur in the most inhospitable of places, the Western Front.
Along the frigid, muddy walls of the trenches, residing somewhere in the countryside of Belgium, British soldiers tried to find rest on Christmas Eve, until something stirred them. From the German side they could hear singing, Christmas carols. The British soldiers responded to their enemies, these men who they had been told to eliminate, by singing along. The singing continued until they heard shouting from the other side, it was an invitation to come to the other side. They agreed to meet halfway.
So there, amid the barbed wire and the dead, the soldiers stood face-to-face in No Man’s Land. For the first time, instead of bullets, they shared wine and cigarettes, stories and photographs. As one British soldier remarked, “We did not fire that day, and everything was so quiet it seemed like a dream.” Some described the German soldiers lining their trench with candles and small Christmas trees, others later told stories of both sides helping to gather and bury each other’s dead. Notably, some soldiers later described goal posts being erected as a football (European, of course) game commenced. As described in the diary of Lt. Kurt Zehmisch, “Thus Christmas, the celebration of love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”
It is unknown how many soldiers across the front participated in these cease fires, or why they never occurred again after that year, but it has had a lasting impact in history. And when the thought of peace seems out of reach, may the unexpected grace of the Christmas story continue to come alive in the unexpected.