It was Christmas Eve, 1914 in the early days of the first great World War. The war was only five months old and already a million people were dead, many in the trenches that stretched for hundreds of miles across Belgium and France. German soldiers lined the trenches to the east, and the allied forces faced off against them in trenches to the west. The area between the two was called “no mans land” a patch of death often no wider than fifty yards, separating these great armies at war.
Now we all know that war as a whole is horrific . . . but this form of it especially so – soldiers dug into deep mud, rotting food, no decent place to sleep, making occasional raids to try to overtake the enemy trench . . . and losing countless lives in every effort, only to retreat into the same deep holes.
As that first Christmas of the war approached, the absolute senselessness of the fight was already clear to the men in the trenches. Seeking to lift the spirits of their army, the Germans sent Christmas trees to their troops. On Christmas Eve, up and down the front lines, the Germans in the trenches put up their trees and even lit candles on their branches – a terribly dangerous act because that light gave away their position. But it is said that the allied soldiers found themselves unable to shoot at someone putting up a Christmas tree.
Then the Germans began to sing cherished carols. The English on the other side reacted by taunting them with bawdy pub songs. The English soldiers mocked the Germans for some time . . . and then finally began answering with carols of their own.
It’s been suggested that it was the singing of Silent Night that finally broke the barriers . . . a song loved by both sides. And that with its singing, the night was miraculously silent for the first time in months. The singing, it is said, went on in many places along the front, throughout the night.
Then, the next morning on Christmas day, soldiers found ways to speak with those who stood on the other side, with signs like, “You no shoot, we no shoot.” Then soldiers slowly crawled out from their trenches, easing their way into no man’s land. They began shaking hands and exchanging gifts with an enemy who had been shooting at them just a day before.
Officers on both sides tried in vain to stop them . . . and finally joined the enlisted men. It is said these weary soldiers played games of soccer, ate and drank together . . . even shared in the effort of burying each others fallen comrades. An unofficial truce lasted throughout the day.
However, the next day, on the 26th, generals on both sides, far behind the lines, made it clear that continuing with such behavior would be seen as treason . . . the war must go on. And so the soldiers returned to their trenches . . . but not like they had before. As one German soldier described it – We spent that day and the next wasting ammunition trying to shoot the stars from the sky.
I love that story, the image of tired, frightened soldiers slowly climbing out of their trenches in the hope that because of Christmas something was different, something had changed, and that the no man’s land of war could become ever so briefly the meeting place of human souls.
This story, it seems to me, is the perfect metaphor for what this holy night is all about. The coming of God into the world, the birth of Jesus brings with it the eternal hope that each one of us can emerge from the trenches we have dug for ourselves to embrace life and one another in new ways. Christ comes to live among us and in so doing bridges the no man’s land between God and humanity, closing the great gap that separates us from the Almighty and from one another.
Think about it. Isn’t part of the reason we gather together on this cold night the yearning to know that Christmas makes a difference? Isn’t part of the reason we gather with friends and family in this holy season the hope that with the coming of Christ the divisions that separate us can be healed, the wounds which plague us can be made well, the hope that our doubts and our fears can be overcome?
We live in a world that can be cruel and unforgiving and all of us, each one of us, dig some kind an emotional and spiritual hole to hide in, to protect us from the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune. Many of us aren’t the people we want to be – we are too angry, too selfish, too indulgent, and too insecure – and while we know the truth we hide from ourselves and the emotional work each of us needs to do to reach maturity. Many of us aren’t in the kind of relationships we want to be – we have hurt or been hurt by the ones we love, we are estranged from a friend or a family member, we don’t know how to open up to our spouse or our children and give them the love and support they need, the love they crave. And so, we hid in our trenches preferring to protect ourselves rather than risk hurting or being hurt by another.
But the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the vulnerability of God made real in that little child announces that this is not the way life has to be. The coming of Christ invites us all to take new risks to be vulnerable, new risks to love. Christmas invites you and me to climb out of the trenches of our fear, the fur lined trenches of our comfort, the all too familiar trenches of our dysfunctional behaviors to face ourselves and one another anew, in the hope that we can change, in the hope that life can be better than it is, in the hope that there is a way out of our predicament.
Finally, never forget that this church or any church can become its own kind of trench. Jesus wasn’t born in a temple, synagogue, cathedral or church. He was born in a dirty, filthy stable – the newest addition of a poor and frightened family a long way from home. And while we celebrate his birth in this wondrous and beautiful place, remember – Christ is not just here with us. More truthfully, Jesus lives out there in all the dirty and filthy places you and I would rather not go – among the poor and the frightened, the lost and the lonely. Let us worship him here tonight, let us celebrate his birth and find hope in the fact that God has come. But let’s not forget that you and I must serve him out there, follow him out there, give of ourselves and our lives as his children out there – in the no man’s land of this world where there are no stained glass windows, beautiful altars or million dollar organs – only people in need. Out there where you and I are called to love the broken, comfort the grieving, feed the hungry, and forgive our worst enemies.
Oh yes, God has come among us, Immanuel is here. But we mustn’t linger too long or we will miss him as he climbs over the bulwarks, out onto the field of battle – to love and die for all the broken hearts of a broken world. Amen.