And something happened that no-one who was there would ever forget. I have an illustrated book of reminiscences written in 1915 by an army padre called Douglas Winnifrith. This is what he says about it: ‘The opposing forces left their trenches and fraternised on the intervening ground, exchanging gifts and good wishes!...For his enemy individually “Tommy” has no hatred. He is goodness itself to German wounded and prisoners to whom I have seen him give the last of his precious Woodbines’. To him, the trenches were an extension of the rugby pitches of Charterhouse and Eton. Sportsmanship was everything, playing the man. So ‘one was not surprised to find him prepared to shake hands with his foe on Christmas Day’.
The following Christmas things were very different. The high command of both sides were determined that there should be no more truces. Anyway, soldiers were no longer in the mood for it. There had been too much suffering. The Manchester Guardian, in its Christmas leader, spoke about ‘a Europe fast bound in misery and iron’, this ‘great disaster to civilisation’, the ‘bitter irony’ of the contrast between the conduct of the war and the spirit of Christmas. It looked back to 1914 across a brutalising year of civilian air raids that had begun on Christmas Day itself, mechanised warfare, the misery of the trenches and poison gas. It spoke about ‘the strange and pathetic episodes of temporary friendship men who were seeking each other’s lives…. We seem to be “dug in” against the essential meaning of Christmas with a thoroughness that leaves nothing to be desired.’ It warned against moralising, saying that ‘the conflict has grown ever vaster and more impersonal, and we should treat it like a terrible earthquake where we know what duty and compassion require of us without being able to answer the question why?’.The Sainsbury’s TV Christmas Truce advert has been criticised for its sentimentality, ‘smearing chocolate’ over the stench of death that permeated the trenches. I didn’t see it that way: 1914 was early enough for men still to believe that reaching out across no man’s land could betoken a future they all longed for. Far too soon it would seem like a broken dream. The Battle of the Somme 18 months later must have felt like the ultimate mockery of those fraternal carols and football games, as if they were a bizarre aberration in the history of war. But that is what makes it poignant. For it asks the questions: what happens when beautiful dreams break up under the weight of catastrophe, cruelty and darkness that are too heavy to bear? Was it just a child’s fantasy that was best forgotten? Or did those lads glimpse a better future that Christmas day as they played at being a world free of threat and foreboding, healed, reconciled, filled with friendship and delight? If so, it was important to remember it.
I expect many a preacher this year is drawing a message out of this centenary of the Christmas truce. The symbolism is powerful as we have seen in the touching memorial unveiled last week in the National Arboretum and designed by a 10 year old from Tyneside: those precious hours of shared humanity in which enemies were drawn together by the Christ Child. Even the terrible attrition that followed did not undo the significance of that moment. It was like a sacrament, presenting combatants with the possibility of a better world in which swords would be turned into ploughshares. That day it felt near enough to be grasped. How wonderful it must have seemed. And if it laid down somewhere in the combatants’ souls a memory of peace-seeking, the realisation that the enemy we are commanded to love is bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, well, that is the purpose of every good dream.
And so it should be at this Christmas time 2014. No-one pretends that the message of ‘peace on earth, good will to all people’ is the truth of things today; like those later Great War Christmasses, it seems further off than ever. Violence, terror and hatred seem ‘dug-in’ in ways that we did not imagine even a year ago. And the worst of it is that so much of it is fuelled by the furies and hatreds of radical practitioners of religion. I mean Islam, that noble religion of dignity, truth-seeking and peace. It is terrible to think that faith can be so debased by atrocities perpetrated in the name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful. And if that were not enough, we now have more refugees and asylum seekers on the move than at any time since the last war. Then we have Ebola, and unending revelations about child abuse, and the plight of the hungry in our own midst, something that took even the Archbishop of Canterbury – who has seen many dreadful things – by surprise. Meanwhile there is scant progress among leaders trying to address climate change, and isolationist politics are pulling us apart from our neighbours precisely when we need one another most. As 2015 dawns the prospect of a better world is bleak.
Yet Advent and Christmas speak into the state we are in just as they did in 1914. Our seasonal stories touch us because they are always fresh and new; they invite us to rediscover innocence. It is like looking at an old master painting: exquisite, beautiful, filled with adoration and joy. But peer into the dark places and shadows on the canvas. Sometimes you can trace a broken world in there: a poor family crying out for bread, the crippled and diseased longing to be healed. Often they conceal a frozen river or skeletal trees, metaphors of deadness. Or the shadows may just be dark, symbolising human hearts breaking under the weight of fear or grief, guilt or worry or pain, waiting for the illumination the birth of Jesus brings. ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.’ That is what we love about Christmas. It holds out the possibility that we can find hope, and life can begin again.
Other than the medicine of the gospel, I don’t have any cure for our ills. If I did, you wouldn’t believe me. But the voice of the prophet in our first reading heralds good news for victims, freedom for captives, release for prisoners, comfort for the sad, gladness for a people who wait with longing and who keep hope and faith alive. It’s the advent of the Lord’s great jubilee. So we must never give up on God and his love for the world he made and will always cherish. We must never despair. This precious Infant in the manger is for life, not just for Christmas. He will know soon enough the bitterness of dark and pain; a sword will pierce his mother’s heart. But by embracing evil and making it his own, he draws the sting out of death and hell. He gives us back our broken selves, our future, our freedom, our happiness, our life. He inspires us to believe that transformation can happen in our world, in our human family, in ourselves.
Was this what those soldiers glimpsed, however partially, in the trenches a hundred years ago, that the true light that enlightens all people was coming into the world? Like Advent, it was a moment of awakened longing for something better. Far off, yet coming one day: a truce that lasts forever, an eternal reconciliation and peace, a healing of the world’s pain, a love that is without limit and without end. We have a reason for the hope that is within us.
Durham Cathedral, Advent 3 2014 (Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-end; John 1.6-8, 19-28)