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More to religion
than pleasing
your imaginary friend

The Reading: Christmas in the Trenches

©John McCutcheon, 1984 (Audio and Images)

My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany to here
I fought for King and country I love dear.
'Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung.
Our families back in England were toasting us that day,
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.

I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound.
Says I, "Now listen up, me boys!" Each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.
"He's singing bloody well, you know!" my partner says to me.
Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony.
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.

As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen struck up some lads from Kent.
The next they sang was Stille Nacht. "'Tis Silent Night," says I,
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.
"There's someone coming toward us!" the front line sentry cried—
All sights were fixed on one lone figure trudging from their side.
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shown on that plain so bright
As he bravely strode unarmed into the night.

Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man's Land.
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand.
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well,
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave 'em hell.
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home,
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own.
Young Sanders played his squeezebox and they had a violin,
This curious and unlikely band of men.

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more.
With sad farewells we each prepared to settle back to war,
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wonderous night
"Whose family have I fixed within my sights?"
'Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung.
For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore.

My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War I, I've learned its lessons well:
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we're the same.


Advent, from the Latin adventus, means "The Coming," or "The Approach." Once recognized as a holy season of the Christian Church beginning four Sundays before Christmas, it was specifically about the coming of Christ — in our past as the baby Jesus, and in our future as Redemptor Mundi, the Redeemer of the World. Now it is submerged in the tide of holiday shopping that fills the void from Black Friday (the Friday after Thanksgiving, when many retailers finally turn a profit for the year) to Christmas Day, the distribution of the loot.

Advent is anticipation, a building of hope and feeling as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, the anniversary season of Our Lord's Birth as one of us. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Twelve days of inspiration, generosity, gratitude , good will, familiar songs, and peace.

So it was on Christmas Eve, 1914, in the trenches of World War I in France and Belgium. The men on both sides were waiting, mostly for another attack by the other side. Instead, an informal truce was struck by ordinary soldiers on both sides, beginning with the singing of Christmas carols. There was even a soccer game, until the ball got punctured on barbed wire. Instead of an attack, the men got a few days — a moment, in the scheme of things — of grace.

At first, the truce was welcomed by their officers as an opportunity to bury their dead. Some of them had lain rotting in the No Man's Land between the trenches for months. But as the British and German troops mingled and got friendly, the officers got frightened. This sort of thing could end the war. Orders were given against fraternizing with the enemy, with dishonorable discharge or death the penalty for disobedience. What ended was not the war, but the peace.

And the rest, they say, is history. World War I led to a defeated, broken and sullen Germany, which led Germany to fall prey to Hitler's ideology of National Socialism (Nazism), which led to World War II and the slaughter of 50 million people, including the systematic genocide of 6 million Jews, and the subsequent mass migration of the survivors who had nowhere else to go to what became the nation-state of Israel, which has endured almost continual war with its neighbors. Defeated along with its ally, Germany, in WW I, the Ottoman Empire was partitioned into many of the countries that form the Middle East today. Some like Iraq, were taken over by Baathism, which is little more than an Arabized Nazism, and many have made themselves enemies of Israel. Weakened by WW I, Russia was overtaken by Communism under which Stalin killed millions to force the collectivization of farming, which inspired many other such takeovers including China with its massacres under Mao Zedong, and provided the ideology that led to the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Killing Fields of Kampuchea under Pol Pot. The foundation of Israel combined with the loss of the Ottoman Caliphate became some of the principal grievances used by al-Qaeda to recruit the perpetrators of the 9/11 and other attacks. And of course, WW II was ended by the invention and use of nuclear weapons, which together with the Cold War led to "Weapons of Mass Destruction," becoming a common phrase.

Need I go on?

If we humans had had the Faith to trust in and sustain what happened on that Christmas Eve in 1914, we might have avoided most of the bloodshed of past century. In other words, what was at stake was not just World War I, but World War II and all the wars which followed from them.

We were not punished for our failure by a vengeful God. No, God offered us a way to build a better world, and we chose instead the familiarity of business as we usually do it. We have not endured a punishment — we have endured the world we were already making for ourselves.

To tell the truth however, the men involved didn't expect the Christmas Truce of 1914 to hold. They took it as a very much wanted, but unexpected opportunity for a few days relief from the drudgery and stress of slaughter. They would have liked more time, but it didn't occur to them that they could take it. Their common Christian heritage — the Gospel — offered them a moment of Grace, but they did not dare ask a lifetime of Grace for themselves, or a history of Grace for the world of us who would come after them.

The men knew the personal risks of war. Odds were that most of them would make it back home, unhurt, with honor. All you had to do was keep your head down. Poison gas was not yet in widespread use, and nobody expected the influenza of 1918. But the risk of peace — if everybody acted together you might be hailed as a hero or a saint, but if not, you might be branded a coward or a traitor. Or you might be taken prisoner. Or you might be shot — by the enemy troops or your own.

That's the thing about these moments of God's Grace. They catch us by surprise. And if we want them to last, we must have the crazy audacity to ask for more than we ever dreamed possible, and to commit ourselves completely, body and soul. Because God's Grace, the Gospel, offers us new selves to become, with new futures. Too often, as in 1914, we turn away, blinding ourselves to the possibilities, trudging our familiar path into the darkness. Because, ironically, it seems less scary to us. Or worse, as in Nazi movement of the 1930's, the Communist revolutions, or the present Bin Ladenist movements, we allow our capacity for that audacity and committment to be perverted to evil ends.

Advent. Waiting for the coming of God's most radical Grace. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. We are always waiting for moments of Grace, as each Advent we wait for Christmas, a season of Grace, mindful that the original Christmas was also a moment of hope and fear. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

Few moments of Grace in recent history have been so powerful, so pregnant with possibility as Christmas in the Trenches in 1914. But they do come. Let us be thankful for the triumph of Solidarity and the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, followed by the non-violent collapse of Communism in 1991. Let us be thankful that India and Pakistan decided not to go to war in 2002 when Pakistan-based Islamic terrorists bombed the Indian Parliament building.

Now whenever our moments of Grace come, small or large, personal or international, may God give us the the audacity to ask for more abundant Grace than we have ever imagined, and the courage to commit ourselves to its path. Or to use more old-fashioned words, may God give us Hope, may God give us Faith.

This Advent may you approach Christmas in God's Grace.

I'm waiting for walkies.

In recognition of the priesthood of all believers, this sermon is by a lay person.

The Christmas Truce really happened. Yes, indeed.