Four months into WWI, in early December of 1914, Pope Benedict XV called for a temporary Christmas cease-fire between the Germans and the British then fighting on the Western Front. The warring commanders refused, but late on Christmas Eve, the soldiers themselves created a spontaneous peace. With the no-man’s land between them only a few hundred feet wide, soldiers could see, hear, and even smell each other. So, when the Germans started singing Christmas carols, and then emerged unarmed calling out “Merry Christmas” from the trenches at dawn, men from both sides came together. They exchanged small gifts, sang Silent Night, and according to some reports, even played a friendly game of soccer. “The Christmas Truce of 1914” was the only such example of chivalry in WWI, which ultimately became one of the deadliest conflicts in human history (38 million casualties, 18 million deaths).
Calls for cease-fires in wars since haven’t worked out too well, not even for humanitarian reasons, much less religious ones. For one thing, the nature of war itself has changed. Air strikes, bombs and drones have depersonalized combat, world-wide terrorism has decentralized the battlefield, and unfamiliar adversaries in unfamiliar places have dehumanized the enemy. So many wars — civil wars, gang wars, drug wars, tribal wars — there’s something for everybody almost everywhere, so that even ordinary people just trying to live their lives, civilians not soldiers, are forced to fight or flee.
That the story of “The Christmas Truce of 1914” endures is a testament to the power of hope; a hundred years later, though, it seems to be the hope of power rather than the power of hope that most often prevails. Witness Aleppo: the failed cease-fires, the thousands killed and displaced, and the thousands still stuck in a war-torn country. This Christmas of 2016 delivers not a truce, but “a complete meltdown of humanity,” according to one UN relief officer. The real tragedy of Aleppo is that after four long years, the world has grown weary of the conflict, and wary of the refugees it has created; the travesty of Aleppo is that we still have people, even people who aspire to positions of power, who have to ask what Aleppo is.
For those everywhere who have grown accustomed to the sounds of gunfire and the ravages of violence, a silent night is a fearful night, full of unholy threats. But for me and my family, who are fortunate enough to sit right here right now in front of our lovely Christmas tree, surrounded by comfort and safety and love, the silent night is a gift of grace, a song to be sung at midnight.
If the worst thing about Christmas is that it comes too soon, then the best thing about Christmas is that it comes at all — because in so many places in the world, it doesn’t. Let us be grateful, then, and let us pray that the calm and the bright will find the darkest corners of the earth.