“The Great War” (or World War I, as it was later known) was a global war fought predominately in Europe. It began on July 28, 1914, and it ended on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. It was the bloodiest and most brutal war the world had ever experienced. Little did we know another more brutal world war waited? During the First World War over 37 million men, women, and children – families – were killed, wounded, or missing in action. When the war began, the common thought was that it would be a quick and decisive war. “Home by Christmas,” was the common thought of leaders and soldiers. Four Christmases would pass before the hostilities would end.
The first Christmas, however, in 1914, something unusual, something unexpected and quite powerful happened. It later came to be known as the Great Christmas Truce. It was not an official truce, of course, but a truce all the same. On Christmas Eve, in NW Belgium, the British troops noticed that the German troops had begun decorating their trenches with candles and Christmas trees. Soon they heard the German troops singing Christmas Carols. (This was before the era of Frosty, Rudolph and the Chipmunks, so we can presume they were carols that sang of the birth of Christ.) Moved by this, the English responded with carols of their own. They followed this by shouting Christmas greetings across the land between the trenches, known as no-man’s land, and soon after, soldiers began to venture out to exchange gifts; gifts of buttons, food, tobacco, and hats and gloves. Each side allowed the other to retrieve their dead, too, to be able to give them a dignified burial. Even soccer games were held. The truce happened sporadically across the Western Front. It’s estimated that 100,000 soldiers were unofficially involved. Inspired by the birth of the Prince of Peace, peace briefly reigned. And then . . . someone fired the first shots, and the war was back on, to inflict its brutal, deadly, violent force on the world.
During this season of Christmas, we can’t help but think about how the world didn’t stop becoming a broken and bloody place for the Holy Family and us after Christ was born. We associate Christmas with shepherds, and Magi, angels singing, and a soft, heavenly glow coming from the manger, as well we should. Into the chaos and brutality of the Roman Empire, the Christ Child was born, to give hope and to bring peace and salvation, and for a moment, that happened. And then, almost on the heels of this great event, comes something quite terrible.
As we read further in Matthew’s Gospel Herod realizes that he’s been deceived by the Magi. They don’t come back with the information he’s requested about the location of this Christ Child who is to be king. So, in a furious rage Herod massacres all the Bethlehem boys two years old and younger. Hoping this action will do away with the Christ Child. But this is prevented, Joseph is awoken in the middle of the night, warned by an angel, to flee for his — and his family’s – life (the famous Flight Into Egypt) to a place, incidentally, which was almost no better than where they came from; Egypt, where the Jews had been enslaved for hundreds of years, still showed the Jews great antagonism. Like the Christmas Day truce, the Holy Family’s respite was brief. But not insignificant; the Peace that entered the world that day has been the only hope for peace since then.
Now Herod has faith in Christ’s divine power, he believes him to be a king. But he doesn’t believe him to be a king of divine love and peace. King Herod could have kept his crown, without fear, living in peace. As with us, Jesus came to redeem Herod, to give him his peace.
We tend to associate Christmas with one day, December 25th. But Christmas is a season. A season that traditionally ends on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord: January 8th this year. Imagine if the joy and the peace of this season, unlike that Christmas Day Truce, extended beyond just one day. Imagine if it extended even further. Not just until Epiphany, or the Lord’s baptism, but into Easter, the summer . . . every day. My friends, in the best way, every day should be a celebration of the Birth of our Savior into this world, into our hearts. Can this day change us beyond just December 25th? How can the birth of the Prince of Peace make us more peaceful people throughout the year?
Can we call a truce in a relationship that is tearing us and another person apart? Can we put an end to hostilities that we harbor in our hearts, in our lives? World discord does not come from nowhere. It comes when we forget our own humanity, their humanity, when we forget that we are created in the image and likeness of God, when we forget that we are seekers and followers of the Prince of Peace. As Christians, we are not supposed to act like everyone else. We forgive when others don’t. We show mercy when others don’t. We’re supposed to be Christ’s representatives on earth. There will always be war and violence in the world as long as there is sin in the world. But peace is not impossible. It always follows when the light of Christ is shone on a dark place, whether that dark place is in our hearts or in a war zone. I wish you a happy, holy, peaceful and Merry Christmas. May the peace of Christ reign in your heart this day, and every day.
Peace and all good,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley