Melbourne News

The ’Christmas Truce’ and the Peace of God

Monday 14 December 2014
By Archbishop Denis Hart, Kairos Catholic Journal
28 JULY this year marked the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. It is a great sadness that the First World War was largely a conflict between the Christian nations of Europe and that the conflict was often encouraged by their Christian leaders. An outstanding exception was Pope Benedict XV who, having the universal Church in his care, was a tireless apostle for international peace.

This Christmas 2014 is also the 100th anniversary of an event that should be celebrated by all people of good will. After just six months of fighting the war that everyone thought would be ‘over by Christmas’, the stalemate on the Western Front in France was literally entrenched. Although the warring nations had rejected Pope Benedict’s call for an official ‘Christmas Truce’, an unofficial and completely spontaneous truce did occur at several places along the Front. When the strains of Silent Night were heard coming from the enemy trenches on Christmas Eve, soldiers on both sides were struck by the horrible irony that they were fighting one another on the eve of the feast which proclaimed ‘peace on earth’.

Taking a step of immense trust—given that only hours beforehand they had been shooting at one another—the soldiers came out of their trenches and crossed No Man’s Land to embrace one another. Guns were downed, drinks, food and cigarettes were exchanged, games of football were played; even a joint German-British Christmas service was held at one place. Importantly, they gave one another the chance to recover bodies of the fallen and to give them burial. Sadly, the Christmas Truce was short lived and the men were soon ordered back to their trenches to continue the fighting. But for a short while, in the midst of the most horrific war that the human race had ever known to that point, peace had broken out.

The situation on the Western Front during Christmas 1914 can be seen as a metaphor for the broken relationships between human beings. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes this broken relationship as a kind of enmity:

In the account of Abel's murder by his brother Cain (cf. Genesis 4:8-12), Scripture reveals the presence of anger and envy in man, consequences of original sin, from the beginning of human history. Man has become the enemy of his fellow man. (Catechism §2259)

On the Western Front, trench warfare made it easier to attack and kill fellow human beings without having to look them in the face and acknowledge their humanity. The Christmas Truce of 1914 was viewed as a highly subversive act by those commanding the war, because they knew that it undermined the soldiers’ willingness to fight and kill one another. Modern warfare, using long range weapons, further depersonalises violence. For millennia, those who have made war have used propaganda to persuade their people that the enemy is a lesser person, perhaps even sub-human. Such ideological ‘trenches’ remain the justification for genocide and ongoing ancient feuds between nations today, just as dehumanisation is a necessary step toward justification of evils such as racism and abortion.

But such division between people, of neighbour against neighbour, arises out of a much more fundamental division. Since the fall of our first parents, humanity has been caught up in a battle with God. We have dug our trench and have hidden from God out of fear and distrust (cf. Genesis 3:8). Enmity against God leads to enmity against our neighbour. But in Jesus Christ, God has brought about not only a truce, but a lasting peace. In the Office of Readings for Christmas Eve, St Augustine writes:

When the Lord was born of the Virgin, the angels announced, ‘Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to people of good will.’ Whence is peace on earth, if not from the fact that the Truth is sprung out of the earth, that is, Christ is born of the flesh?  And he is our peace (Ephesians 2:15), who has made both one, that we might be people of good will, bound together by the sweet bonds of unity.

(St Augustine, Sermon 185)

By taking on our human nature, the Son of God has bridged the no man’s land between the trenches. St Paul taught that ‘while we were still enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son. How much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life’ (Romans 5:10).

But at the same time, when the Son of God ‘became man’ (as the Nicene Creed reminds us in the liturgy every Sunday), he embraced the nature of every human being who has ever lived into his one human body. Just as he was ‘consubstantial’ with God the Father from all eternity, so, by the incarnation, he became ‘consubstantial’ with the whole of humanity. Thus he has made peace also between human beings, reconciling us with our neighbour. He taught the fundamental unity of the two greatest commandments of God’s law: Love God and love your neighbour (Matthew 22:36-40).

The birth of Jesus Christ and the proclamation of ‘peace on earth’ by the Christmas angels must be for us a source of true peace in our world today, which continues to be riven by many violent conflicts. We who celebrate Christmas are called to be both heralds of God’s peace with humanity and enactors of peace between members of the human race. Again, in the Office of Readings for 31 December we read the following injunction from a sermon by Pope St Leo the Great:

In the treasury of the Lord’s generosity what can we find more suitable to honour the present feast than the peace first proclaimed by the angels’ chorus at the Lord’s Nativity? Peace it is that gives birth to children of God. Peace is the nurse of love, the mother of unity, the repose of the blessed, and our eternal home. The real work and special blessing of peace is to join to God those who it sets apart from the world.

Let those then, who are born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man but of God, offer to the Father the oneness of heart of peace-loving children. Let all the members of adoption come together in the first-born of the new creation, who came to do not his own will but the will of him who sent him …The birthday of the Lord is the birthday of peace. As the Apostle says, ‘He is our peace, who made us both one.’ For, whether Jew or Gentile, ‘through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father’.

In our community here in Australia today, there are people from every nation under heaven living side by side, people of all cultures and races and religions. It is time for us to climb out of the trenches of enmity we have dug between us and our neighbours, to cross the yards that separate us, and to be reconciled to one another. Barriers of racism, suspicion and intolerance must be overcome.

This Christmas, let us reach out to one another with the good news of peace, just as God has reached out to us with the gift of his own beloved Son. In particular, as we sing our Christmas carols, let us take to heart what these songs say about ‘peace on earth’. Jesus Christ is truly our peace with God. May he also be our peace with one another.

Picture by The United Kingdom Government/ Wikipedia Commons/ Public Domain
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