(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Please click here to listen to the message. See below to read it.
One-hundred and four years ago, on Christmas Eve 1914, World War One was five months old. After Germany invaded France as a way to quickly win the war, fighting instead bogged down into a stalemate. French and British forces dug hundreds of miles of trenches to stop the Germans – who in turn dug their own extensive trenches. Those battle lines remained the same for another three years. No side was able to win.
But that did not stop the killing. Attempts to breech the lines were periodically tried. Bombing, artillery barrages and poison gas were also used. Meanwhile, multitudes of young men were killed or seriously wounded for no reason. 9 million soldiers died during the war. 21 million were injured. The war to end all wars was one of mankind’s bloodiest.
Christmas Eve 1914 was cold and clear at the battle front. Frost covered the ground as both sides prepared for another night of uneasy watchfulness. Accounts of what happened next are varied but all are true. At some point, troops on both sides spontaneously stopped shooting and instead began singing Christmas carols. British troops sang out in English while the Germans listened, and then those roles reversed. O’ Come All Ye Faithful was sung by the British, followed by the Germans singing Adeste Fideles. The same happened with Silent Night and its German version – Stille Nacht.
British soldiers peered over the lines and saw the German trenches suddenly lined with candlelit Christmas trees. Troops on both sides ventured into the no mans land between lines to gather and bury the dead. Several started friendly soccer games between the two sides. Still others observed the day and night with prayer and impromptu Christmas services – attended by all soldiers. One British soldier described what happened to his squad: “We were met in no man’s land by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine, and we gave them a cake and cigarettes. All through the night we drank and sang carols together.”
Another soldier observed in his diary, “Really, you would hardly have thought we were at war. Here we were, enemy talking to enemy. They like ourselves with mothers, with sweethearts, with wives waiting to welcome us home again. And to think within a few hours we shall be firing at each other again.”
An unofficial Christmas truce had been started not by politicians or generals, but by those most affected by war – average soldiers. For many of them, the truce lasted all day and night. For a lucky few, the truce extended until after New Year’s. This Christmas Truce of 1914 has been depicted in film, opera, poem and song. One haunting choir piece about the event ends with a plaintive question, “Why can’t all days be like Christmas Day?”
And that plea echoes the sentiment in the song Michael just sang about a much different human tragedy. The song “Do They Know It’s Christmas” was written in 1984 and performed by an international group of famous pop singers. The song was a hit and raised nearly $10 million dollars for African famine relief. Today, the song is played during the holidays to remind us that suffering and hunger still affect many. Let them know it’s Christmastime. Feed the world.
For me, the song points out an unfortunate irony. Huge amounts of charitable financial giving and volunteering occur between Thanksgiving and Christmas. For several years, members of the former Gathering assembled as a group to serve at the Freestore’s annual holiday food basket give away.
Freestore coordinators soon asked us, however, to stop our December volunteering. With so many people wanting to help during the holidays, individual volunteers often have little to do – and that discourages people who came to help. Better, the Freestore told us, to serve the rest of the year when giving and volunteering are not as common. Because of so many good hearted volunteers, thousands of hungry people in Cincinnati do not have trouble knowing its Christmastime.
But during the rest of the year, many of those who experience food insecurity or homelessness ask the plaintive question young soldiers asked at Christmas 1914, “Why can’t every day be Christmas Day?” Charity and kindness, it seems, is wonderfully expressed during the holidays – but too often forgotten afterwards.
I can’t, however, begrudge the fact that compassion is common in December. That is at it should be. What better way to celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa or Diwali than to serve and give? But the values of December holidays are not intended to be honored just a few weeks each year. Christmas and other holidays are instead annual reminders that ethics of peace, charity, good cheer, and kindness are to be practiced every day. If that were to truly happen, what an amazing world it would be!
The Jesus child, as Bible stories tell us, was born to a teenage mother from a poor and insignificant village. There was no reason to believe Mary and Joseph’s firstborn would be great – much less one of the most influential persons in history. The mythical story of Jesus’ birth nevertheless resonates thousands of years later precisely because it tells of his humble origins. The one who taught breathtaking ideals of forgiveness, love for one’s enemies, sacrifice, service, and generosity was himself born on the margins of society. There can be no better way to teach compassion than to have suffered oneself.
It was Jesus’ teachings, and the resonance of his birth story, that inspired young soldiers to stop their fighting for a few hours and come together not as enemies – but as brothers. It’s that same story that inspires us to sing out “Feed the World” and then actually work to make that happen. The stories and lessons about Jesus need not all be true to nevertheless have had a profound impact.
A few years after Jesus’ death, Paul – who wrote much of the New Testament, decided to leave Jerusalem and venture into areas where the story of Jesus was unknown. Before he departed, however, leaders of the Jesus movement reminded Paul that while his evangelical intentions were good, he must always remember the poor. They understood that the foundation of Jesus’ teachings was compassion to the sick and impoverished. If God’s love is to have any meaning, it must be shown to all – and not just believers and those who choose to convert.
Paul, to his credit, followed that advice. When he visited Corinth, a wealthy city at the tip of Greece, he found its early Christian churches to be highly exclusive. They were like clubs comprised of people who believed themselves to be favored by God because of their wealth and good fortune. Those of modest means were excluded from Sunday celebrations because they were seen as dis-favored by God. Paul was appropriately shocked and demanded the exclusion stop. The Bible says he scolded the Corinthians: “When you meet together, you are not really interested in Communion. Many of you hurry to eat without sharing with others. As a result, some go hungry while you get drunk. Do you really want to humiliate the poor?” he asked. Paul then reminded them that the heart of Jesus’ teachings was to love one another – to live in peace, share, encourage, and help.
Also in the Bible, Jesus’ brother James is said to have taught a vital lesson to people of ALL beliefs: having spiritual faith in something is good – but it must be proven. As James supposedly wrote, “What good is it if you say you have faith, but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? Faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.”
James, in his letter, concludes by writing, “Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves others is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love others does not know God, for God is love.”
For me, that last phrase represents the entirety of what I believe. No matter a person’s religion or no religion, the ultimate force for good in the universe is love. And that ethic is ultimately what Christmas and all other December holidays are about. We celebrate at this time of year a fictional account of Jesus’ birth. But even though it may be myth, its lesson is not. The Jesus child was born to teach love to all humanity. If we want to know the meaning of life, we must love. If we want to understand beauty and honest morality, we must love. If we want to have peace in the world, and peace in our hearts and minds, we must love.
And that love is not the syruppy kind that has little impact. Genuine love as taught by Jesus is nearly impossible to show. It’s a love that is given unconditionally – no strings attached. It’s a love that rejects human impulses for retribution, anger or bitterness. We must love our enemies, we must love the filthy homeless person, the prisoner serving time in jail, the sick and elderly in nursing homes and hospitals, the other-abled who hunger for acceptance, the poor, hungry and despised of the world, the family member, stranger or fellow church member who has hurt us – or with whom we disagree.
At this time of year, showing love to all others is almost mandatory. The message of the holidays is the lesson we get from the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” It’s the answer to the question soldiers asked at Christmas 1914, “Why can’t every day be Christmas Day?” And that lesson is a simple one:
We must unite in peace. We must feed the world. We must love one another. May we each heed these truths all year long – as if every day is Christmas Day.
I wish you very happy holidays filled with peace and joy…
For a brief talkback time, I will appreciate you sharing how you celebrate the ideals of Christmas now and throughout the year?