The world was at war as Christmas approached in 1914.
Then, suddenly, peace broke out. At least for a few days.
On Christmas Eve, along a stretch of the Western Front in Belgium, German soldiers put candles on their trenches, erected Christmas trees and began singing carols. Their nearby British enemies responded in kind, singing the songs they knew. Before long, the two sides were shouting Christmas greetings back and forth and even crossing the “No Man’s Land” between them to exchange gifts: food, tobacco, alcohol. The guns went silent. And soldiers were able to retrieve the bodies of their fallen behind enemy lines. Joint burial services were held.
On this Christmas Day 2015, our world – fraught yet again with war, violence and hateful words – could use another such declaration of peace.
And not just the world at large. The best gift many stressed-out families could receive this holiday season is an olive branch.
For me, Christmas is also a time to seek internal peace by trying to let go of petty grievances, forgive others – and ask forgiveness for myself.
The desire for peace has been part of the Christmas message from the beginning. Just read the Bible or listen to the music.
In “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (1739), Charles Wesley took his cue from Luke’s Gospel account of the angels proclaiming good news to the shepherds in the fields:
“Hark! The herald angels sing/Glory to the newborn king/Peace on earth, and mercy mild/God and sinners reconciled!”
Handel’s “Messiah” (1741), another Christmas treasure, goes back even further, to Isaiah in the Old Testament, who prophesied that unto us a child would be born and that one of his names would be “Prince of Peace.”
Though just about everybody who makes war – with guns or words – has claimed God as an ally, my guess is that God is almost always on the side of peace, of getting his children to stop fighting and make up.
I say almost always, because there are clearly times when it becomes morally imperative to stop those bent on terror and slaughter. The Nazis had to be defeated, and so does ISIS today.
In the process, though, let’s not adopt their dehumanizing language or cold-bloodedness by promising to “carpet-bomb” people or assassinate wives and children.
For all the talk about war and peace globally, peace begins at home, in our own lives.
In mine, peace becomes elusive whenever I find myself lecturing instead of listening, judging instead of empathizing, and seizing on differences instead of seeking out similarities.
In “From a Distance,” the song made famous by Bette Midler (though Nanci Griffith recorded it first), we are told that “God is watching us from a distance,” and that, from where the Almighty sits, we all look like brothers and sisters – just as God intended.
The song even suggests that, from a dispassionate distance, war – on the battlefield or in our relationships – makes no sense to even those of us who wage it:
“From a distance, you look like my friend/even though we are at war./From a distance I just cannot comprehend/what all this fighting is for.”
I love the words. But the title has always struck me as backwards.
At Christmas, Christians believe that God decided he so loved the world that he didn’t want to be distant. He desired to enter the world and be with his flesh-and-blood creation. So, like us, he was born a baby, starting his life in the stillness and peace of Bethlehem.
And “From a Distance” is a pretty good description of what is ailing America these days. Instead of meeting and getting to know people of a different race or religion or political affiliation, many of us are too often content with keeping our distance, making uninformed judgments, and then hurling hate-filled words.
Peace is really up to each one of us. Or as my favorite Christmas song puts it, “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.”
So, this Christmas, I’d like to follow the lead of those long-ago British and German soldiers, who put down their guns and made peace instead of war.
But unlike them, I hope I – and all of us – can keep our cease-fire going, and give peace a chance long after we box up the Christmas lights and ornaments and return them to the attic.
On this Christmas Day, too, I also plan to snatch a few moments of quiet and say a prayer for peace.
That’s the invitation we get from the king in the final verse of “Do You Hear What I Hear.” It’s among the most inspiring songs of the season and one that reminds us that on that first Silent Night, Jesus didn’t come into the world as a fiery warrior but as an infant with outstretched arms:
“Said the king to the people everywhere,
Listen to what I say!
Pray for peace, people everywhere.
Listen to what I say!
The child, the child, sleeping in the night,
He will bring us goodness and light.
He will bring us goodness and light.”