War and Peace

Here we are in the season of peace, when peace on earth — despite our hymns and prayers — seems more remote than ever. And yet, in the human heart we long for peace — for our nation and in our own lives. Is there hope?  Well, here we are in the stretch of days between Christmas and New Years … within the twelve days after Christmas leading us to Epiphany — the clearing, the manifestation, the culmination of this season.

I spent a peace-filled few days around Christmas itself in nearby Colonial Williamsburg, festively decked out for the holiday season and likely pleasing the crowd of visitors to that restored village. It was all celebratory — the shops decorated to lure customers inside to purchase last-minute gifts, the taverns and restaurants with their special menus, and the Inn where I stayed completely booked with families who likely came there as a family tradition through the years. All lovely indeed and brimming with goodwill as we passed each other in the lobby and hallways, with greetings of “Merry Christmas!” to one another.

While there I happened to pick up a New York Times, and the December 26th front page story was titled, “Human Costs of the Forever Wars, Enough to Fill a Bookshelf.” The author and critic, Michiko Kakutani, discusses the recent spate of books that have been written by journalists and former soldiers who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, describing — each in his own way — the horrors of those endless wars and the aftermath of human waste that has followed many soldiers’ homecoming. He mentions Phil. Klay’s collection of stories, Redeployment, which won this year’s National Book Award for Fiction, and a 2012 novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, where Lynn returns home disoriented with our “wretched excess, at the junk food and fancy clothes and obsession with status and money, and wonders when ‘American became a giant mall with a country attached.’”

Anyway, as someone has said, “war is hell,” and we’ve gotten into wars since 9/11 that have proven unwinnable in any conventional sense. And the cost in human terms is really incalculable.

But here we are in the season of peace, when peace on earth — despite our hymns and prayers — seems more remote than ever. And yet. And yet. In the human heart we long for peace — for our nation and in our own lives. Is there hope? 

Which brings me to a piece written by John Buchanan in a recent issue of The Christian Century. He calls it “Christmas Truce,” and it’s about the Christmas truce of 1914, in the midst of World War I — that war that was supposed to end all wars but didn’t — with the cost in terms of human life and suffering “enormous and horrifying.” WWI was largely fought in trenches, filled with mud and bloodshed, with soldiers from both sides lobbing hand grenades at one another across short distances.

But as Christmas approached that year in 1914, both sides received packages from home. British troops received cigarettes, greeting cards and plum puddings, and Germans received tobacco, pipes, sausages and beer. Apparently the German soldiers also received little Christmas trees to set out in their trenches.

Well, on December 24 the shooting began to slow down and then stopped completely. Soldiers on both sides simply stopped shooting at each other. Apparently no orders were given, but the troops simply stopped shooting at one another. And the Germans lit their little trees with candles and set them out above their trenches. Let me quote Buchanan because the image he draws is lovely.

In one spot, a German voice called out: “A gift is coming now.” The British got down for cover, expecting a grenade. What came across was a boot filled with sausages. The British troops responded by sending a plum pudding and a greeting card from the King. Then singing started: patriotic and military songs at first, followed by applause from the opposite trench. Then, breaking an eerie silence, the Germans sang “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht,” and the British joined in, all up and down the front, with “Silent Night, Holy Night.” On Christmas Day opposing troops ventured out to extend greetings, awkward handshakes, and small gifts. In several places soccer games were played. After a week or so the shooting resumed.

In a book later written titled Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, the author writes that that truce “remains a potent symbol of stubborn humanity within us.” Yes, there is something deep within all of us that longs for peace, a longing that will not be quenched. And so we still hope, that peace is still always possible — even in our own lives this holy season.

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying Glory to God … and on earth peace among those of good will.” And so our stubborn humanity sings on, clinging to the hope that is in us all.

Seasons Blessings to one and all!