Updated: Dec 24, 2021
WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGES
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (Is. 9:1). This is how the prophet Isaiah kicks off the message about the messianic era in the first reading. I am not sure there could be a greater message of joy and freedom for any generation than this. And why wouldn’t the shepherds in the gospel run off in excitement on hearing a message like this since they are technically in the dark, “keeping the night watch over their flock.” The story of their life changes. Everything becomes different. The darkness of their night gets illumined. Joy overtakes gloom because the savior is born. Christmas changes everything.
During World War I in early December 1914, history tells us that Pope Benedict XV called for a Christmas truce. The fighting in Europe had been growing for almost five months. However, his efforts failed when Russia rejected his attempt at peace. The trenches of war were filled with weary, cold soldiers.
Regardless of the rejection, along the British and German lines, a sudden rise of Christmas Spirit among the soldiers created a phenomenon that wasn’t seen for the rest of the war. If you picture this scene: Germany has really cold, miserable winters. Soldiers of various nations were freezing, hiding in their fox holes. Separating the soldiers was a short stretch of space between trenches of the German soldiers and the soldiers considered enemies of various other nations – the British, French, Belgians, etc. The place was known as “no man’s land” because the corpses of those who tried to advance lay unburied as a reminder of why that stretch of land earned its dreadful name. But on Christmas Eve 1914 no man’s land was transformed into a sacred ground and a momentary fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah. The people who walked in the darkness of war, in the abyss of hatred, in the cold nasty fear of death and vengeance saw a great light; those soldiers who dwelt in the gloom of hopelessness witnessed the light of Christ. Christmas changes everything.
British machine gunner Bruce Bairnsfather, later a prominent cartoonist, wrote about it in his memoirs: “Here I was, in this horrible clay cavity,…miles and miles from home. Cold, wet through, and covered with mud.” There didn’t “seem the slightest chance of leaving—except in an ambulance.” At about 10 p.m., Bairnsfather noticed a noise. he recalled, “I listened. Away across the field, among the dark shadows beyond, I could hear the murmur of voices.” He turned to a fellow soldier in his trench and said, “Do you hear the Boches [Germans] kicking up that racket over there?” “Yes,” came the reply. “They’ve been at it sometime!” The Germans were singing carols, as it was Christmas Eve. In the darkness, some of the British soldiers began to sing back. “Suddenly, we heard a confused shouting from the other side. We all stopped to listen. The shout came again.” The voice was from an enemy soldier, speaking in English with a strong German accent. He was saying, “Come over here.” One of the British sergeants answered: “You come halfway. I come halfway.” “Here they were—the actual, practical soldiers of the German army. There was not an atom of hate on either side.”
On their own, the soldiers decided not to fight on Christmas. Stories of this unofficial Christmas Truce were published in newspapers around the world. The Chicago Herald printed part of a letter from a British soldier describing what took place. “On Christmas eve we were shouting across ‘Merry Christmas!’ The Germans shouted, ‘Don’t shoot till New Year’s Day!’ Christmas morning the weather was foggy and there was no firing. We started wandering over toward the German lines. When the mist cleared, we saw the Germans doing the same thing.”
Climbing from their trenches onto the battle-scarred “no man’s land,” British and German soldiers shook hands, swapped cigarettes, and jokes, and even played football. “We all have wives and children…we’re just the same kind of men as you are,” one German said. Gifts were exchanged between soldiers: pies, wine, cigars and cigarettes, chocolates, pictures, newspapers. Whatever they had with them in the trenches. Some even exchanged names and addresses to reconnect after the war! (New York Times, December 31, 1914, World War History: Newspaper Clippings 1914 to 1926.)
Most famously, they played an impromptu soccer game, now fittingly commemorated in a statue outside of St. Luke’s Church in Liverpool. The statue, titled “All Together Now,” shows a German and British soldier bending forward to shake hands, a football at their feet. These soldiers didn’t look to the government, generals, or commanding officers for peace. They looked to Him who is named Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. These rough and weary men looked to a helpless baby, Christ-child, and found peace, warmth, and joy. Christmas changes everything.
Christmas starts with Christ whose presence brings the real truce in our lives. The holidays bring us together with family and friends that we don’t often see. Sometimes those people have hurt us. Maybe a brother or sister, mom or dad, husband or wife, maybe a colleague at work or a friend has hurt you. Can we call a Christmas truce? Can we reach our hand and heart out with peace and joy to those who have hurt us? Like the ‘enemy’ soldiers during WWI? Can we lay aside our differences and offenses for now and enjoy the birth of God? Peace on earth begins very small. Jesus is the example of that, that infant in the small space is the reason for the world’s joy.
Immigrants travel back to their homes to be with families because it’s Christmas. People who haven’t been to church attend mass because it’s Christmas. Exchange of gifts, wrapping of presents make a huge difference because it’s Christmas. Churches, houses, and courtyards are adorned with flowers because it’s Christmas. Christmas simply changes everything because Christ’s birth rewrites our stories. It is the good news of great joy for the shepherds in Bethlehem, same for families, same for you and me, and for everybody today. Christ‘s birth brings God’s love to mankind. At Christmas, heaven and earth unite. The angel declares, “For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.” God is inviting us to run with this good news of great joy right from this Mass. Run with it, don’t drop it, something great is happening in your life. All Christ needs is the manger of our hearts. Can he find that space, no matter how little? Can that “no man’s land” become a place of peace, forgiveness, joy, and freedom to embrace others?
Imagine the angels praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Lk. 2:14). Christmas changes everything.
Readings: 1st- Is. 9:1-6; 2nd- Titus 2:11-14; Gospel- Lk. 2:1-14