It was exactly 200 years ago that one song was played and sung for the very first time that since has become a Christmas classic: Silent Night, Holy Night. There are some legends around the origins of this song, but what we know for sure is that Joseph Mohr, a young priest, at some point penned the words and, after the became the priest in Oberndorf, Austria, he asked the church musician, Franz-Xaver Gruber, to set those words to music.
The rest is history. That simple, yet hauntingly beautiful song that first was heard by maybe 50 people in the small chapel in Oberndorf, spread in throughout Austria, and from there throughout all the world. ‘Silent Night’ arguably is the most popular Christmas Carol there is; it has been translated into about 140 languages. And if you had entered churches all around the globe today, on Christmas Eve, you would have heard ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ – ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht’ – ‘Noche de paz, noche de amor’ – ‘Douce nuit, sainte nuit’.
There is something about this song that people of many cultures can relate to: the miracle of birth, the awe when we see a newborn child, the longing for peace and quiet in a world that more often than not is in turmoil. There is something universal about this song that touches a certain nerve.
It was almost exactly 100 years ago that one of the most horrendous wars this world has seen ended: World War I. And I don’t want to dwell too much on all the horrible things that happened during that war, after all, this is Christmas Eve, but rather talk something that happened during that war that has since been called a miracle: The Christmas Truce of 1914.
The war had started just a few months before, during the height of the summer, and all parties involved at that point expected it to be a quick affair – many soldiers were convinced they’d be home by Christmas.
But this war quickly turned into a grueling war in the trenches. Many who had gone enthusiastically to the frontlines to fight for their respective countries were disillusioned and battle weary as Christmas approached.
Pope Benedict XV. urged the leadership of the warring nations to enter a truce on Christmas, as did the Archbishop of Paris; but the leaders were intent on keeping the fighting going.
But then the miracle happened: all along the frontlines in the West and also in the East, and in a quite unorganized fashion, the men in the trenches rebelled – and many of the officers with them. They decided to lay their weapons down on Christmas Eve. We have reports of Germans, a group of Saxon soldiers, to be exact, rolling out a barrel of beer toward the British trenches as a Christmas gift – a gesture that the British responded to by offering the Germans Christmas puddings.
There are stories of soldiers showing each other pictures of their loved ones at home, having spontaneous soccer matches, sharing their provisions with each other, and giving each other gifts. And it is confirmed that in many places, the men would sing together that one Christmas carol they all knew, the one carol that expresses a universal longing: Silent Night, Holy Night, each in their own language.
The disillusioned and battle-weary men remembered their shared humanity on that night – and how God entered this world as a human as the angels sang about peace on earth and goodwill toward all humanity. They experienced something that is universal: the longing for relationship, the longing for home, the longing for peace. The longing for God to come down to earth to reconcile human beings with God and with each other.
One British survivor of the war, a man named Murdoch Wood, testified before the British Parliament in 1930 that he experienced that men on both fronts were ready to lay down their weapons for good. But those who were orchestrating the war were not willing to enter a permanent truce, they were not willing to end the war.
The fighting eventually continued, but according to some voices from the war, the attitude had changed. How can you hate someone you just laughed and cried and ate with? This shared humanity the soldiers remembered on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day was not forgotten. The next year, the soldiers on the frontlines planned to repeat the Christmas truce. But the high brass military leaders gave orders to continue the fighting and threatened to discipline anyone who’d disobey their orders.
Despite the ultimately not so happy ending, this is a feel-good story. This is a story that gives us hope. This is a story that reminds us, especially during our own uncertain, contentious and tumultuous times, what Christmas is all about: good news for ALL people – did you hear that? ALL people – peace on earth and goodwill toward all humanity and among all humanity.
As God becomes human, God reminds us what it means to be human – and to treat each other humanely. God reminds us that, in the end, despite the trenches we may find ourselves in, looking at someone else as the enemy, we share our humanity with each other. We share feelings and experiences that are universal. We share a longing that is universal: to find ourselves in a world, where we are reconciled with God and with one another – where we treat each other as human beings – and where eternal peace reigns.
This post is also available in: German