A Homily on the Theme of Peace

Jan Vickery Knost

First Parish in Norwell
December 23, 2001

"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,

T.S.Eliot, "Journey of the Magi"

On most Saturdays Lorna and I, like many of you, listen to National Public Radio's regular program called "Weekend Edition. Last December 1st host Scott Simon interviewed an author of a recent book titled Silent Night. Sometimes Lorna and I are apt to exchange what we call "an early Christmas gift". I guess it's the "kid" in us still. Anyway, the book, Silent Night was just that for me. It is an amazing volume which I commend to you all. Today, since the major part of the service will be presented by our church school children I will try to tell you something of the magic that is contained in that book's 175 pages.

On this day before we begin a celebration of the holiday that seeks "peace on earth, good will to all" we are caught in the paradox of praying in the midst of a war being fought thousands of miles from these New England shores. In reflecting on that anomaly, I accidentally cam across a statment made by Abrham Lincoln in his Inaugural Address of 1861. He said:

"Suppose you go to war, you cannot fight always; and when, after much loss on both sides, and no gain on either, you cease fighting, the identical old questions as to terms of (human dialog) are again upon you."

World War I was a terrible struggle. At its end 14 million human beings were dead. One of the reasons for the high rate of death was that the war was carried out mostly on the ground. Foot soldiers faced each other across what came to be known as "No Man's Land". They stood in trenches watching the enemy across barbed wire, waiting breathlessly for the next gas attack or charge.

In Belgium and France where the war began and many still question why. In fact, it was a war that this country tried valiantly to avoid for some time. When finally committed, songs like "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" were written in nationalist pride. But the thoughts and feelings of the soldiers were often of another sort. And that is where our story begins - a true story which happened in 1914.

Here is a quotation from the book to set the scene:

"A Lieutenant of the 143rd lower Alsation regiment described Germon dugouts as `desperate offenses against nature'. Candle stubs lit the dripping, rotting sandbag walls. Floors were foul-smelling viscous mush. Sand-filled sacks hung from the ceilings, not always successfully, kept food from the reach of rats. Men deloused themselves by sizzling lice in the flame of a candle, while others not so fortunate, blew on their hands, seized rifles and ascended for sentry duty. Relieved soldiers would stagger in, blinded by the candles, unbuckle and search for food. Then came sleeping. Eating and sleeping, standing guard and in between , trench digging. (As) one recalled, that was the routine." (Page 2)

It was natural, then, that soldiers on both sides of the struggle should be influenced by the revulsion they felt for the whole affair. Not only were their surroundings horrible, they had reached a virtual stalemate where neither side could move. So there they sat, 60 yards from each other. They could see each other. They could hear each other.

Then on Christmas eve a wonderful thing happened. The Germons venerated Christmas much more so than the English. Although Prince Albert of Germany had brought the first Christmas tree to England, it wasn't celebrated so highly as in Germany. And actually some of the German soldiers had brought along small trees, maybe 30 inches high. All the British soldiers had were the care packages sent from home. Oblong boxes containing various presents, candy, cookies and cigarettes.

So both sides had gifts, gifts enought even to share. Obviously the British didn't know what to do with all the plum puddings they had and the trees they saw across the barbed wire were reminders of Christmas at home.

Then someone began to sing. Soon both sides were singing, in English and in German. "Silent Night, Holy Night" sang the British. "Stille nacht, Heilege Nacht" sang the Germans. When the trees were put up on the trench tops to be seen the British never fired their gujns. Some even crawled out of their trenches to see what the Germans were doing and they, in turn, crawled out to meet them.

How wonderful to have a time where no guns were fired; to have a truce. But in the dark it was difficult to fraternize. So they decided to wait for dawn to celebrate. But before they did they also decided to bury all the dead bodies of their comrades. This they did. Then someone said "Let's play football". After all, some of the Germans had actually played soccer football in Great Britain, some even had relatives their. And so, in the mud they cleared an area and soon, with a substitute ball they were playing football. So it went through the day. It came to be called the "Truce of 1914". And two things emerge from the book that bear repeating.

One was that since the men celebrating had become acquainted, they no longer appeared as demons, one to the other. This created a problem for the commanders. They realized that their men simply would not fire on those they now knew. So each side pulled the troops off the line and inserted other "demonized' troops to make sure that the "mutually-shared destruction" would continue.

The other fact was that among the German troops was a corporal named Adolf Hitler. He refused to fraternize. He said he didn't believe in Christmas or in being friendly with the enemy so he stayed back. But you see, had the war ended then in 1914 certainly Hitler would have remained an obscure corporal and most probably would not have been around to make the trouble he did in the decades that followed.

We can take a lesson from these historical facts. Soldiers often discover that, though on opposing sides, they are much the same. And it is difficult to demonize an enemy who is much like you. And it could only have happened where there was a cultural affinity instead of the kind of cultural divide faced today in Afghanistan.

I will close with the words of Mr. Frank Johnson, a British World War I veteran remembering the Christmas truce of 1914:

"Then, lo and behold, here was a German coming down the riverbank with his hands up above. One of our old chaps threw his equipment off. He went out to meet him. Well, they shook hands, then we all got out. Company commander came rushing in. He was gonna shoot any man that went over. This voice from the next bay said he was too darn late. He didn't know which one said it, so we all had to get out. Well, we mucked in all day, talking and one thing and another. One of the Germans said to me in excellent English, too, `Well,' he said, `I don't know.' he said, `how long do you think this darn war's gonna last? I'm fed up to the neck.' `Well,' I said, `you're not the only one fed up.' I said, `We're up to our necks in water and mud.' He said, `And we're the same.'"

Suddenly, then, T.S. Eliot's words take on a completely new and wonderful meaning:

"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."


(Much of the material for this homily was taken from the text of Weekend Edition, December 1, 2001, Scott Simon, host and Stanley Weintraub, author of Silent Night.)