Peace is one of the primary themes in all the world’s great religions and an integral part of their winter holy days. In the Christian tradition, peace is one of the themes of Advent, the season before Christmas. One of the four Sundays before Christmas Day, we light a candle of peace on the Advent wreath, and we recall how the angels sang of “peace on earth, goodwill to all.”
But far too often, peace is illusive and ephemeral. And even during the holidays, wars are waged and fought. As I write this, we all have concerns about the growing threat of ISIS in the Middle East. We worry about our troops in Afghanistan and other places around the world. Given the level of conflict in the world, peace seems like only a greeting card slogan, rather than a possibility.
But this Christmas season marks the 100th anniversary of an amazing event, which it seems good to remember. One hundred years ago, during Christmas, troops who were huddled along the trenches of World War I stopped shooting their guns and targeting the enemy. And for a brief, shining moment, peace broke out.
The idea started with the Pope in early December, who suggested troops take a hiatus from warfare during Christmas Day. Specifically, he asked “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.”
But the political leaders in neither Germany nor England were keen on the idea. So, it languished as an unlikely dream.
To understand the full weight of this moment, remember first the carnage and horror of World War I. Nations used chemical weapons against each other. Troops hunkered down in trench after trench. Sometimes enemy trenches were well within shouting distance. Thousands of people died in close, bloody conflict. You saw your enemies’ eyes. You watched them die up close.
But on Christmas Eve, without the permission of their governments, troops on both sides slowly put down their weapons. The British first noticed Germans lighting candles in their trenches and on makeshift Christmas trees. Then, they started singing Christmas carols in German. The British reciprocated by singing back. Each side began yelling “Merry Christmas” across to one another.
Eventually, a few brave souls ventured out of their trenches and into the “no man’s land” between. Soon others joined them. Weapons fell silent up and down the line. These enemies traded food, cigarettes and alcohol. They collected their dead, and even held joint services for the deceased. They sang carols together. They played a game of soccer (no kidding).
And for a brief moment, they embodied peace.
Two things, it seems to me, made this all possible. First, there most definitely was a true spiritual awakening in the hearts of these enemies. What else explains the trust they had to lay down their arms? But also, it’s clear that this event happened because ordinary soldiers wanted it to happen. They didn’t listen to their leaders, and in doing so, peace broke out.
It didn’t last long. Soon after the holidays were over, the carnage of the war picked up again. And, as you know, the war would continue for several more Christmases. But 100 years down history’s path — past dozens more wars and conflicts that have plagued humankind since — this amazing story still resonates.
And as we move through our own holiday season this year, surrounded by wars that still seem intractable, remember this amazing story. It’s not just some preacher’s pipe dream. It was a real moment of peace that actually happened.
Through God’s spirit working in human hearts and the choices of the ordinary enemies in our day, may our world know true peace during this holiday season, too.
Because that kind of impossible peace is a part of what the holidays are truly about.