This is the second in a series on the four Sundays of Advent. For the 1st Sunday, Hope, click here.
It’s easy to lose sight of the genuine profundity of World War I, the Great War, in our world off first-person shooters, militarized law enforcement, and perpetual military interventions waged from control rooms thousands of miles from targets. War had seemingly transformed its very nature over night. Gone were the days of spring campaigning and winter waiting; war could be waged at any moment of any day. Simpler technology, inadvertently inhibiting the scale of conflict, was replaced by machine guns, long-range artillery, tanks, aircraft, and chemical warfare which could all pave battlefields with lifeless bodies. War, rather than occurring in relative isolation, could now pull entire continents and civilian populations into its hell.
I simply cannot fathom how jarring this shift in reality would have been for all involved. How many mangled bodies or foxholes bombed out of existence must one see before realizing that this was the new world? But even there in the trenches, divine hope found a way to blossom in a graveyard, as it always does. In December 1914, as the first snows of World War I mingled with the ash, thousands upon thousands laid aside their arms. Men up and down both fronts, surely cautiously at first, emerged from the trenches and met in the middle in love rather than enmity. What brought British, French, German, Russian, and Austrian forces together? Christmas.
In celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace, enemies came together to sing hymns, exchange gifts, trade services such as haircutting, and even play soccer. Though Death had claimed the pockmarked No Man’s Land as its domain, the radical love of Jesus for a time exploded like no bomb ever could, filling the middle ground with rejoicing and reconciliation. Though critics point out that many places observed no such truce, that the truces didn’t ultimately last, and that the following Christmas saw commanders plan offensives to prevent such fraternization, the gospel witness of the Christmas Truce stands tall, even finding its way into a century commemorative commercial for a supermarket chain in the UK (it is absolutely worth your time to click this link and see this miracle reenacted). The call for future offensives to prevent truces does not detract from Christmas 1914 but rather testifies to its importance, for Hell and Death had to redouble their efforts in fear of another victory for reconciliation.
What, other than coincidence of season, does the 1914 Christmas Truce have to do with Advent? Absolutely everything. Today, the second Sunday of Advent, many celebrants focus on Peace. Isaiah 11 gives us one of the most famous passages on peace in all of Scripture:
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
What we see here is peace, Christ’s peace, not merely the absence of conflict. Christ’s peace is a rejection of the status quo in favor of radical reconciliation across enemy lines. Like Christ, we live in a time in which we can accept peace by way of war offered by the dominant political power of the time. But the Pax Americana does as little to heal as the Pax Romana. As in the days of Jeremiah the Prophet, the societal powerbrokers cry out for their peace, a weak peace that protects the evils of the status quo rather than healing them. The “peace” of this world is a fragile, pathetic thing in which the oppressed must stay oppressed and enemies must either stay away or stay dead. Thus the peace of Christ is by necessity distruptive. And for a few beautiful moments in the supposed “War to End All Wars”, craters and barbed wire gave unwilling witness to the one thing that can and will end war, disrupting our attempts in favor of something better: wolves and lambs, calves and lions, Allied and Central reconciled by a child born in a manger, leading them to God’s true peace.