by Scott Stiegemeyer
War and Peace. It’s more than the name of a massive Russian novel. It’s also a great picture of Christmas.
World War I is often called the first modern war. This is because it was the first truly mechanized war. There were airplanes and unprecedented killing machines. It marked the first extensive use of what we would later call “weapons of mass destruction,” such as the dreaded mustard gas, which burned the lungs and throats of all who breathed its toxic vapors. This is the war of the infamous Lost Generation of writers whose nihilism and spinning moral compasses helped kill the Victorian age of gilded optimism. Traumatized authors like William Golding, George Orwell and J.R.R. Tolkien, all veterans of the French front, later painted a picture of human nature that contradicted the narrative of moral progress which previously prevailed. Battered by the horrors of modern combat, the cultural elites could no longer be convinced that humankind was getting better every day and in every way.
On Christmas Eve 1914, the war had been raging only a few months and already 800,000 men had been wounded or killed. Imagine it. That’s a lot of blood and guts. The Western Front was a meat-grinder. The dugouts in France were filled with terror-stricken men and boys set on each other’s destruction.
And then something truly remarkable happened. A few German soldiers lit candles and set up Christmas trees in their muddy trenches, filled with rot and stench. They started singing Christmas carols over the canon fire:“Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” Soon the British joined their voices: “Silent Night, Holy Night. All is calm. All is bright.” The hellscape of the War to End All Wars was punctured by the sounds of heaven.
One by one, the combatants laid down their weapons and poked their heads above the trenches. It is estimated that perhaps as many as 100,000 soldiers on both sides, in various places along the Western front, disarmed and ventured into no-man’s-land for an informal Christmas truce. They gave each other small gifts of chocolate bars and cigarettes. Men who, the day before, had been shooting to kill each other were now shaking hands and sharing plum pudding. Then, early on Christmas morning, some of the British soldiers produced a soccer ball. They started a game. Some of the Germans joined in. All thoughts of killing were forgotten. In some places, the informal armistice continued the next day, neither side eager to fire the first shot.
One takeaway from this amazing historical episode is that even in the midst of armed conflict, even in the middle of one of the bloodiest, most brutal hostilities this planet has ever witnessed, the birth of Jesus was able to clear the fog of war and reveal something of the love of God. We could be cynical and attribute the cease-fire to nothing more than a natural human desire for relief from battle. But the fact is that, though attempts were later made to reproduce the Christmas truces, the governments and officers would not go along. Nothing quite the same occurred again. Maybe Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, brought these fighters together in a way that nothing earthly ever could. Some people call it a miracle.
That Christmas, enemies became friends. And by the grace of God in Christ, the same thing is happening today and around the world. God is in the business of turning His enemies into His friends, through manger and cross. A former Muslim in Berlin is baptized into the name of the Holy Trinity. A battered woman finds haven in a church-run shelter. Homeless children share a hot meal at the rescue mission as Linus reads Luke chapter two on TV. This is a new order of things, a new heaven and earth, that has already begun, and to which Christmas calls us. In this new creation, we will beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. In the new creation, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb … and a little child shall lead them” (Is. 11:6–7). In the new creation, all that is wrong shall be set right.
The new creation is now. It is here in the body of Christ, gathered to the table, made alive by His Spirit, and strengthened by his promises. And yet, it is still to be fully realized. We still live with one foot in an age of rebellion. Still: the hour is coming when feuds and fighting will be no more. The hour is coming when people will no longer savage each other with tooth and claw, wounding their fellows with words and deeds. Yes, the hour of perfect fulfillment is yet to come, but it is also already here. It began in the Virgin’s womb many years ago — an event commemorated with joy by billions of people each year on December 25.
What the world is pining for is peace, like the angels sang. Like the Christmas Eve truce of 1914, which was followed by four more years of violence and bloodshed, the peace that the world gives always comes with strings attached. Do not worry. Jesus gives us peace unlike anything the world offers. Jesus reconciles the world to God by His blood. Jesus is the bridge between heaven and earth. More than a ceasefire, this is not two parties who agree to disagree. This is God doing everything to restore friendship with human beings. That is the real miracle truce of Christmas.
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn king;
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.”
The Rev. Professor Scott Stiegemeyer teaches bioethics and theology at Concordia University, Irvine, Calif.