The Trenches on Christmas Eve are quiet. There is no fighting. It will all be over by Christmas they had said. And yet, here they were, cold, wet and without family in a French field full of mud. Mud made not entirely by mixing the earth below with water. Could they ever wash out that blood soaked dirt?
It’s unusual not to have an artillery barrage at least once a day, but they had held off today. The great guns sat silent, the only noise being the clink of the horses who pulled the metal behemoths.
The post from home was late, delivered early evening; each man clinging to postcards, photographs, letters, reminders of home and humanity. For here was not a place where humanity could easily dwell. Some had begun to suspect it was the mouth of hell – little did they know in the years to come how true that suspicion was.
On this night, names such as Somme, Ypres and Verdun were only names of places on a map. Yet still, the men could feel the creeping dread just around the corner, as if horrors unknown waited for them there. And of course, they did.
But still, on this night, although the first flush of excitement had faded, there was still an innocence in the hearts of the men, a hope undiminished.
And the hope found a voice. For as one German soldier shivered beside his Captain he heard a familiar sound from further down the trench. A song he had learned and cherished, a song gifted to the world by a fellow German. The song was perfect for this night, this Christmas Eve. Singing a song that told of Peace, Grace and Tenderness seemed at first the furthest thing from the experiences of the last months – and yet, where else were such things needed? Where better to yearn for Peace than in the midst of the World’s Greatest Conflict? Where better to sing of Redemption then in the place of greatest loss? Where better to seek the reconciliation of Heaven than these very gates of Hell?
And so the soldier sung too. Joining the song lifted him out of this trench and placed him in the blazing sky with the Angels of long ago. But most incredible of all was the echoed sound coming from the trenches across from him. Sung in a foreign and fearful tongue – and yet the same words, the same beauteous sound, the same spirit of Hope. When the song was over, the peaceful spirit still lay on the soldier, like a comforting blanket. He slept better that night than he had for four months.
The following day found the soldiers rested, energised and encouraged. Christmas day. The day they were supposed to be at home. The deadline they had supposed to have “won” by. The celebration of a birth, commemorated in pits of death. When the artillery started it would be business as usual, the business of firing his weapon, ducking down, reloading and repeating. But it was Christmas day. The celebration of a birth, commemorated in pits of men. And this man would not fire today. This man would not shoot any of his fellows on this day of all days. And this day of all days was one for men to shake hands, was one for respite, was one for peace, was one for hope.
Placing his rifle gently down he stepped slowly towards the ladder out of the trench. Remembering the strong tenor voice from the evening before, he grabbed a stash of cigarettes and climbed the ladder. There in No-Man’s land was already standing a number of nervous Tommies. He looked behind him and signaled for his fellows to join him unarmed. He strode to one of the fellows across the blood soaked mud and held out his hand. In his most excellent English he declared “Happy Christmas” to the Enemy and they shook hands.
For this was a celebration of a birth, commemorated on a field of battle. The celebration of a birth commemorated in a handshake of reconciliation. The celebration of a birth, commemorated with gifts, football and ceasefire. What better way to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace.
Here we have a truly Christmas story. A story about conquest not through arms, but through amity. Where for a moment, reconciliation overcomes enmity. Where the broken men on the front of an increasingly bitter war were given a voice – a voice that started its fightback with a song. This is a story not about the rich and powerful of the world, about the generals and kings (who apparently were so afraid of the Christmas Truce because if it continued it would mean the end of the war). It is about the ordinary men who for a moment realised their power. The continuation of war relies on those at the bottom to keep on shooting. And here they just stopped.
I can almost feel Jesus smile as the ordinary men show the powerful how it’s done. I can see his joy as the beaten and broken men are the ones who actually “get” what Christmas is really about. And you know what, Christmas is every day. Because every day we can make the choice to offer reconciliation instead of bitterness, every day we can accept the voice Jesus has given us and every day we can offer a voice to those who don’t have one. I don’t want Christmas to be a Silent Night, I want it to be one of shouts of joy, one of cries against injustice, one of words of forgiveness and reconciliation.
What about your silent night moment? Will you step out of the trench?