Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A Christmas-in-the-Trenches Moment

A moment of grace blossomed in the midst of carnage in blood one Christmas in 1914. Men from both sides of the trenches of Western Europe initiated a truce--on their own:
How did the truce start?
It bubbled up from the ranks, with both armies making small gestures of good will in the days before Dec. 25. Near Armentières, France, some Germans suggested a brief, local cease-fire, even sweetening the deal with a chocolate cake. Along the Lys River, a battalion of Welsh infantrymen hoisted a banner reading “Merry Christmas,” accompanied by a sketch of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Then, as temperatures dropped below freezing on Christmas Eve, the guns in many sectors fell silent, and thousands of British soldiers heard something they would never forget.

What did they hear?
It was the haunting sound of Germans singing “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”). Through the gloom, the British could also see the flames of candles dotting the branches of makeshift Christmas trees—“like the footlights of a theater,” said one amazed Tommy. Up and down the line the British, moved by the holiday spirit, responded with carols of their own; following each selection, the other side would cheer and applaud. Soon, greetings of “Happy Christmas!” “You no shoot, we no shoot!” and “Come over here!” echoed across no man’s land. Slowly, cautiously, the two armies crept out into the shell-blasted landscape.

What did they find?
Ordinary men like themselves. Once they had broken the ice with greetings and handshakes, they started talking about their homes, their jobs, their families. Many realized that they bore each other no real emnity, that they were merely pawns in a vast struggle beyond their control. Gifts were exchanged; English corned beef and German cigars were particularly popular. “Where they couldn’t talk the language,” wrote Cpl. John Ferguson of the 2nd Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders, “they were making themselves understood by signs. Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill!”

Did the camaraderie endure?
For a short time, it spread. On Christmas Day, thousands of unarmed men from both sides again emerged from the trenches, having agreed to use the daylight to collect their dead. This time, the enemy soldiers swapped pieces of equipment and parts of their uniforms. Many shared photographs of their families and took pictures of themselves with their new friends. “We are at any rate having another truce on New Year’s Day,” Lt. Dougan Chater of the 2nd Battalion, Gordon Highlanders, wrote in a letter, “as the Germans want to see how the photos come out.” In some places, combatants even played soccer with makeshift balls. “Our privates soon discovered,” recalled Lt. Johannes Niemann of the 133rd Saxon Regiment, “that the Scots wore no underwear under their kilts so that their behinds became clearly visible any time their skirts moved in the wind. We had a lot of fun with that.”
In the spiritual carnage of the Great Schism that even today lays waste to Christian witness, Catholic Prelates from opposite sides of the trenches offer one another a truce. Catholic World News has more:
Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Moscow reached out to Russian Orthodox believers during his homily at Christmas Mass, saying that despite differences in their respective liturgical calendars, Catholics and Orthodox "share the single joy of Bethlehem."

The archbishop's words were a reference to a recent controversy in Moscow, where Catholic and Orthodox believers celebrate Christmas on different days. The Russian Orthodox Church, using the Julian calendar, celebrates the Nativity on January 7. Catholics, along with most Protestants in Russia, celebrate Christmas on December 25. Archbishop Kondrusiewicz also expressed his best wishes to those celebrating the feast on the later date.

Some militant Orthodox believers, led by a prominent Moscow deacon, had threatened to picket the city's Catholic cathedral on December 25, "in defense of the Russian Christmas." That protest was called off when it provoked adverse reactions.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II made his own gesture toward Catholics, and other Christians "celebrating Christmas on December 25 according to new style," with a public statement: "I wholeheartedly wish you radiant joy in the newborn Savior, good health, and God’s help in your lofty ministry. "
The world needs more than a truce between brother Christians. It needs the witness of a family of disciples united in Love. Both Roman and Eastern Orthodox Catholics have failed to provide this witness. "Thus have we made the world."

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz and Patriarch Alexei II's mutual exchange of goodwill represents another opportunity for the Church to breathe with both lungs. Pray that Fools of goodwill from both communions work to see that their brothers make the most of it!