Sermon preached Christmas Eve, 2012
Episcopal Church of the Incarnation
Santa Rosa, CA
Many of us are familiar, I’m sure, with the beautiful story of Silent Night – about how, on Christmas Eve, 1914, in the first winter of World War I, some German soldiers began singing their version of Silent Night, Stille Nacht, and about how the British soldiers, not a hundred yards away, joined in on the singing, and pretty soon British and German soldiers, who just a few hours earlier had been shooting at each other, were belting out Christmas carols together.
And you have perhaps heard, then, how, as their courage was made strong by their singing, they began to climb out of their trenches and calling out to the other side, “Don’t shoot! We won’t shoot either!” and pretty soon soldiers from both sides were meeting in the middle of no man’s land, shaking hands, exchanging souvenirs and delicacies like Bavarian ham and English cigarettes. Pretty soon someone brought out a soccer ball, and within moments a hilarious soccer game was under way
One British private, serving in the 2nd Queens Regiment, wrote home about his experience: “It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere; and about 7 or 8 in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches and there were these lights -I don't know what they were. And then they sang "Silent Night" - "Stille Nacht." I shall never forget it, it was one of the highlights of my life. I thought, what a beautiful tune.”
It’s a beautiful story, made even more beautiful by the fact that it is true, and well-documented by letters sent home from the front.
What is slightly less well known is how this was not just a single incident involving just a few dozen men. According to the New York Times, over 100,000 soldiers participated in these spontaneous outbursts of peace on that day, stretching all along the front. In one case, it was “Silent Night” that inspired the truce; in another, it was “O Come All Ye Faithful” – the Germans replied with the Latin version – Adeste Fidelis.
Nor is it commonly appreciated, I think, just how frightening it was for those first few soldiers as they stepped out of the protection of their trenches. One German Captain wrote about this in a letter home: “I shouted to our enemies that we didn't wish to shoot and that we make a Christmas truce. I said I would come from my side and we could speak with each other. First there was silence, then I shouted once more, invited them, and the British shouted `No shooting!’ Then a man came out of the trenches and I on my side did the same and so we came together and we shook hands - a bit cautiously!”
Nor do we hear much about how enraged the generals became when they heard about this. The commander for the British troops, Gen. Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, wrote, “I have issued the strictest orders that on no account is [this fraternizing] to be allowed between the opposing troops. To finish this war quickly, we must keep up the fighting spirit and do all we can to discourage friendly [exchange].”
Apparently it never occurred to the general that perhaps the war might be finished more quickly, and more honorably, if the soldiers were allowed to follow their more natural inclination, which was to exchange gifts rather than bullets.
The famous Christmas Truce of 1914 has become something of a real-life endorsement of that famous bumper sticker, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?”
Or, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore…”
By the time Christmas Eve rolled around a year later, the generals were ready; they made sure no more spontaneous outbreaks of the Christmas Spirit would be tolerated. They threatened the front line officers with courts-martial, rotated troops to keep them on the move, and ordered artillery barrages to prevent anyone from raising their heads above the trenches. Nonetheless, it is known that a few artillery companies intentionally aimed their cannons away from the troops, making it possible for a few gift exchanges and spontaneous soccer games to break out.
By the time the third Christmas of the war came around, each side was so exhausted and dispirited by the war, and so thoroughly convinced of the inhumanity of the other side, that there was little danger of further Christmas truces.
But one wonders: what if they had been able to sing Silent Night every day, and not just on Christmas Eve? What if all the generals had been unable to stop the singing of Silent Night? What if Silent Night had been ringing in every soldier’s heart, not just that one night, but every night of the war?
The other day a friend of mine prevailed upon me to sit through a Lord of the Rings Marathon; and I have to say it was time well spent – a spiritual experience, really. One especially striking scene was near the end. Frodo and Sam are trying, with their very last ounce of strength, to get through Mordor and to Mount Doom, where Frodo will try to drop the Ring into the pit where it will be destroyed. But they are absolutely exhausted; Frodo is fitfully sleeping and whimpering and shivering from the cold and exhaustion; that’s when Sam sees a break in the clouds – it’s the first sign of light since they entered the evil country. A couple of stars twinkle as the clouds break, and Sam says, “Mr. Frodo! Look! There is light! Beauty up there – that no shadow can touch.”
It made me think of the times in my own life when I felt lost, and at the end of my rope, and beyond saving, only to see a star, or a sunrise, or the smile of a friend, or a simple gesture of kindness – and that’s all I’ve needed to find the strength to carry on.
It makes me think, on this dark and cold light, of the star that hung over Bethlehem, and of the stars that shined over that battlefield nearly a hundred years ago, giving those wretched soldiers the courage to speak words of peace and of love.
It reminds me to keep an eye out for that star, each day – for in the midst of darkness and grief, there is light. A light to enlighten the nations. The Prince of Peace.
A member of our congregation has a daughter who teaches school in New Town, Connecticut – thank God, a different school than the one that was attacked so terribly last week. A few days ago she wrote to her mother and her friends about what it’s been like. After describing poignant scenes of grief and unspeakable loss, she says, There is “good that’s come out of this…, [in] the outpouring of love felt by people worldwide. Comfort items like blankets, quilts, stuffed animals, and books have been pouring in at a rate that has overwhelmed those coordinating. People are sending and want to send money, not only to help the families directly affected, but also the people in town. There have been accounts of people calling from across the country to give their credit card numbers to our little General Store, with instructions to pay for every cup of coffee purchased and other gestures like that. Flowers, wreaths, candles and even 26 Christmas trees have been sent and placed at memorial gathering places. The love and grief of the world has been felt. I can’t describe the sheer numbers of people who have come from places near and far to care for our townspeople. The resources are amazing and they all seem to know just how to help and what to do – especially as we felt paralyzed the first few days….”
Events like this remind us that for every sick murderous psychopath bent on destruction, there is an army of good soldiers singing “Silent Night” – the world is full of so many more people willing to sacrifice and work hard for the good of all, so as to completely overwhelm and outnumber the few who seek to do harm. When we know how to be helpful, we help.
Silent Night is being sung, every day. The star that gives hope to us all is shining in the darkness – and the darkness does not overcome it.
Many churches, on the one week anniversary of New Town, tolled their bells 26 times to honor the 26 children and educators who were killed. But at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC – which is an Episcopal Church, I’m proud to say – the bell was tolled 28 times. Because the killer and his mother were also human beings who deserve our prayers. For as Jesus taught us, what good is it if we pray only for those who deserve our prayers, or only for those whom we like, or approve of. That is not God’s way; that is not the way of the Christ. Jesus came to this world to set a new standard for love – that we cross the battle lines of division and enmity; that we climb out of our trenches; that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
We who are gathered here tonight follow a god whose purpose was to simple: to love, without exception; and to meet every person who would do him harm with an open heart and an invitation to love.
It is this love – this Silent Night kind of love – to which the world has responded. We are here tonight because we know that no one is perfectly good, or perfectly evil, and no one is beyond the reach of God’s love.
Today as I was scanning through Facebook I found this post by a member of our congregation:
"On Friday, I stopped at a local Santa Rosa restaurant to have lunch while doing some misc. Christmas shopping. When I tried to pay for my lunch, I was told that a person at another table had paid for my lunch. She had already left, but it was apparently a regular customer for years who picks someone at random each year and buys their meal. So... feeling like I wanted to extend the Christmas spirit, later in the day, I paid for a few people behind me at the Starbuck's drive-up. The woman at the window told me there were many gestures of this type during the Christmas season and she gave me a coupon for a free beverage. Today, I drove through to use my free coupon but was told the person in front of me had bought my latte for me. So... I used the coupon to pay for the person behind me.............”
Seems like this Silent Night love is breaking out all over the place. It seems like you can’t even buy a cup of coffee in this world without someone buying it for you! That’s a Silent Night kind of love. Would that it were being sung every day. Maybe, if we choose, it could be. Maybe, if we make this our prayer; maybe, if we hold hands and open our hearts and look for the star that is beyond all shadow, we will find the strength within ourselves to be messengers of that love.
Maybe, if we believe it can be so, we, too, can be bearers of that light and that love. That’s what this church believes is true. May it be true for you, this Christmas night, and for all the nights that await us. Because good hearts, open to the light of Christ, can work miracles.
May it be so. Amen.