The Trenches Sang of Joy


German and British troops laid down their arms on Christmas Eve, 1914, in the bloody fields of the Western front during World War I. Ordered to continue to kill, the men rebelled, if only briefly, to exchange greetings and to sing Christmas carols.

Silent night, Holy night

This night comes but once a year. The soldiers knew it, as they peered across the valley of the shadow of death at one another, each side dug into trenches and ready to kill.

All is calm, all is bright

They sought peace, if only for a moment. The taking of sides, the press for advantage, the imperative to survive – all that could be put on hold, even against the orders of generals bent on death and more death.

Round yon virgin, mother and child

Could it be, the divine conjoined with flesh? Or is all flesh really divine, life a mystery, so like a gift, so easily scorned, but to be cherished? What becomes of innocence?

Holy infant, tender and mild

Forever and always hope of a better world, of the potential for perpetual peace, even as we tear at one another, fighting, arguing, pushing, shoving, always and forever at war with one another, even with ourselves.

Sleep in heavenly peace

Can we do so? Can we?

Sleep in heavenly peace

Or do we find peace only at the end of our days, a vagrant eternity composed of the mere absence of striving?

Silent night, Holy night

I believe tonight, help thou my unbelief.

Son of God, love’s pure light

We are the sum of our struggles. I say yes, you no; fine then, I will say no, but then you will say yes. Can we lay down our arms just this once in the name of something more?

Radiant beams from thy holy face

Even silent heavens reflect a sense of awe; go ahead, call it holy, and tell me you see the face of God. I believe, I say, help thou my unbelief.

With the dawn of redeeming grace

Aren’t we all, at the very least, in need of grace, intimately aware of nature’s stain, a sense of sin incipient and just beneath every surface, all of us speaking with unclean lips?

Jesus, Lord at thy birth

Silence now, in the face of faith.

Jesus, Lord at thy birth

Out of nothing, a world; from despair, hope. The least among us bears riches. We know this.

Silent night, Holy night

Just this one night we can lay down all that separates and divides us, and dream aloud about what we could become. Sweet dreams unreasonable about reason and all that we could be. Imagine, imagine what a world without hate could be.

Shepherds quake, at the sight

Not just shepherds, but kings, and generals, and false prophets shudder, too. A new world is possible -- race, class, nationality, all these lines in the sand, comfortable tethers to narrowing senses of self. A child is born, and all is possibility; how quick we are to say no to the silent yes within,

Glories stream from heaven above

Children know this, and we take strength from them. Can we once again be as children? Do we dare?

Heavenly, hosts sing Hallelujah

Listen, just listen to the sounds of the stars, the planets in their orbits. Can you hear the heavens sing? Can you hear the holy night?

Christ the Savior is born

Who among us is not in need of redemption?

Christ the Savior is born

And so, all was hope, until we made it unhopeful, fashioning a cross from wood that could just as easily been used to build a cradle. One night the soldiers sang, and then the killing resumed, we each of us so certain that ours was the better way.

I love Christmas. I love the night before, when all is silent. I love sitting with family and forgetting, for just one day, the fighting that consumes each day. Don’t you?

So Merry Christmas to all. Thank you for reading, for disagreeing, for wishing me ill, and for agreeing, and for wishing me well. It’s a rare privilege to have access to these pages week after week.

Tonight, today, I accept the gift of grace and will act as though a better world has, in fact, arrived, the world we all struggle to create in our own discordant ways each day.

Merry Christmas, I say, and again, Merry Christmas.

Also listed under: Journal Register Columns

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