The Rev. Natasha Brubaker Garrison
Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20
Christmas Eve, 2010
There is something so beautiful about this story that instinctively we feel it must be true. Whether we are Christian or not this story captivates us, invites us into the inside of life to find an eternal truth—a divine understanding. We sense a truth in this story that is deeper and more real than if all the “facts” of it actually happened as described. This is the heart of myth. A myth is not a lie; a myth is not just an invention of fancy. A myth, as one very precocious five-year old explained, is a story that is not true on the outside, but true on the inside. All the details may not be utterly accurate, but that isn’t the heart of the matter. The heart is the truth that is within and that emerges through the way the story is told.
The heart of this story tonight is that God comes to us as one of us in the very same way that all of us come into this world: as a baby, a child. The heart of this story is that through the life of this child we discover how the love and peace of God takes flesh and is lived in the here and now. The heart of this story is that the deep hope for peace on earth is possible and it will become real through what we do and how we understand the world. It is also a collision of myths.
The story takes place in the time of the Roman Empire. Based in Rome its troops and its bureaucrats were stationed throughout the empire’s domain—a domain that covered continents. Calm, called peace by the Emperor, was maintained through strong-arm control, repression, occupation and the imposition of Rome’s norms as the best and only form of civilization.
The myth of the day was that of Rome’s inherent superiority and the greatness of its kingdom for all who were under its control or sway. Luke starts his story by reminding us of this other myth—Augustus was ruler of all the world. He was called the Prince of Peace, Our Lord, Son of God, Counselor and many other titles. They should sound familiar to our ears for they are ones we use for Jesus. But these were the common appellations for the Caesars: found on coins, engraved on statues, recorded in histories.
The peace and order of Rome was also a myth, perhaps better named propaganda or spin. It is here we find the crucial difference. A myth, a true myth, is one that speaks to a universal, to an understanding about human nature and reality that helps us know who we are and what we are, to a revelation of the holy that is larger than any particular people or kingdom or culture. The false myths take a particular and try to make it a universal. This was Rome. What the shepherds heard was the true myth that echoes across the universe eternally.
Luke is inviting us to juxtapose these two kinds of myth and to understand the truth revealed in this child born in humble circumstances to parents trying to survive in a hard and brutal world. Peace comes to all as a gift, not by force. The reviled and outcast, the poor and the rich, the wise and the foolish, all are able to come to Bethlehem to be touched by grace and love. The holy is born in a child that lies in a feeding trough in a city that’s name means house of bread. We are to understand that it is God that feeds us in all ways from the grain of the fields to the spiritual food of the soul. The holy is tangible in a family, in a mother and father, in stars that sing and a universe that reveals God’s glory. These are only some of the truths this story is giving us.
Yet the central truth Luke wants us to grasp is that of the angels’ message: peace on earth. When we glory in God, respond to God and to the God revealed in each other than peace is not merely a wish, but a possibility. The inside truth of this myth is the continual longing of us humans for peace. The plea and hope for it rings through thousands of years of history. The shepherds yearned for it as much as we still do today in a world that is so riddled with violence and seemingly endless war.
Perhaps no story better captures the way that this baby creates peace on earth and this myth becomes experienced truth than the one I am about to share:
My dear sister Janet,
It is 2:00 in the morning and most of our men are asleep in their dugouts—yet I could not sleep myself before writing to you of the wonderful events of Christmas Eve. In truth, what happened seems almost like a fairy tale, and if I hadn’t been through it myself, I would scarce believe it. Just imagine: While you and the family sang carols before the fire there in London, I did the same with enemy soldiers here on the battlefields of France!
As I wrote before, there has been little serious fighting of late. The first battles of the war left so many dead that both sides have held back until replacements could come from home. So we have mostly stayed in our trenches and waited.
But what a terrible waiting it has been! Knowing that any moment an artillery shell might land and explode beside us in the trench, killing or maiming several men. And in daylight not daring to lift our heads above ground, for fear of a sniper’s bullet.
Through all this, we couldn’t help feeling curious about the German soldiers across the way. After all, they faced the same dangers we did, and slogged about in the same muck. What’s more, their first trench was only 50 yards from ours. Between us lay No Man’s Land, bordered on both sides by barbed wire—yet they were close enough we sometimes heard their voices.
Of course, we hated them when they killed our friends. But other times, we joked about them and almost felt we had something in common. And now it seems they felt the same.
Just yesterday morning—Christmas Eve Day—we had our first good freeze. Cold as we were, we welcomed it, because at least the mud froze solid. Everything was tinged white with frost, while a bright sun shone over all. Perfect Christmas weather.
During the day, there was little shelling or rifle fire from either side. And as darkness fell on our Christmas Eve, the shooting stopped entirely. Our first complete silence in months! We hoped it might promise a peaceful holiday, but we didn’t count on it. We’d been told the Germans might attack and try to catch us off guard.
I went to the dugout to rest, and lying on my cot, I must have drifted asleep. All at once my friend John was shaking me awake, saying, “Come and see! See what the Germans are doing!” I grabbed my rifle, stumbled out into the trench, and stuck my head cautiously above the sandbags.
I never hope to see a stranger and more lovely sight. Clusters of tiny lights were shining all along the German line, left and right as far as the eye could see.
“What is it?” I asked in bewilderment, and John answered, “Christmas trees!”
And so it was. The Germans had placed Christmas trees in front of their trenches, lit by candle or lantern like beacons of good will.
And then we heard their voices raised in song.
Stille nacht, heilige nacht . . . .
This carol may not yet be familiar to us in Britain, but John knew it and translated: “Silent night, holy night.” I’ve never heard one lovelier—or more meaningful, in that quiet, clear night, its dark softened by a first-quarter moon.
When the song finished, the men in our trenches applauded. Yes, British soldiers applauding Germans! Then one of our own men started singing, and we all joined in.
The first Nowell, the angel did say . . . .
In truth, we sounded not nearly as good as the Germans, with their fine harmonies. But they responded with enthusiastic applause of their own and then began another.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum . . . .
Then we replied.
O come all ye faithful . . . .
But this time they joined in, singing the same words in Latin.
Adeste fideles . . . .
British and German harmonizing across No Man’s Land! I would have thought nothing could be more amazing—but what came next was more so.
“English, come over!” we heard one of them shout. “You no shoot, we no shoot.”
There in the trenches, we looked at each other in bewilderment. Then one of us shouted jokingly, “You come over here.”
To our astonishment, we saw two figures rise from the trench, climb over their barbed wire, and advance unprotected across No Man’s Land. One of them called, “Send officer to talk.”
I saw one of our men lift his rifle to the ready, and no doubt others did the same—but our captain called out, “Hold your fire.” Then he climbed out and went to meet the Germans halfway. We heard them talking, and a few minutes later, the captain came back with a German cigar in his mouth!
“We’ve agreed there will be no shooting before midnight tomorrow,” he announced. “But sentries are to remain on duty, and the rest of you, stay alert.”
Across the way, we could make out groups of two or three men starting out of trenches and coming toward us. Then some of us were climbing out too, and in minutes more, there we were in No Man’s Land, over a hundred soldiers and officers of each side, shaking hands with men we’d been trying to kill just hours earlier!
Before long a bonfire was built, and around it we mingled—British khaki and German grey. I must say, the Germans were the better dressed, with fresh uniforms for the holiday.
Only a couple of our men knew German, but more of the Germans knew English. I asked one of them why that was.
“Because many have worked in England!” he said. “Before all this, I was a waiter at the Hotel Cecil. Perhaps I waited on your table!”
“Perhaps you did!” I said, laughing.
He told me he had a girlfriend in London and that the war had interrupted their plans for marriage. I told him, “Don’t worry. We’ll have you beat by Easter, then you can come back and marry the girl.”
He laughed at that. Then he asked if I’d send her a postcard he’d give me later, and I promised I would.
Another German had been a porter at Victoria Station. He showed me a picture of his family back in Munich. His eldest sister was so lovely, I said I should like to meet her someday. He beamed and said he would like that very much and gave me his family’s address.
Even those who could not converse could still exchange gifts—our cigarettes for their cigars, our tea for their coffee, our corned beef for their sausage. Badges and buttons from uniforms changed owners, and one of our lads walked off with the infamous spiked helmet! I myself traded a jackknife for a leather equipment belt—a fine souvenir to show when I get home.
Newspapers too changed hands, and the Germans howled with laughter at ours. They assured us that France was finished and Russia nearly beaten too. We told them that was nonsense, and one of them said, “Well, you believe your newspapers and we’ll believe ours.”
Clearly they are lied to—yet after meeting these men, I wonder how truthful our own newspapers have been. These are not the “savage barbarians” we’ve read so much about. They are men with homes and families, hopes and fears, principles and, yes, love of country. In other words, men like ourselves. Why are we led to believe otherwise?
As it grew late, a few more songs were traded around the fire, and then all joined in for—I am not lying to you—“Auld Lang Syne.” Then we parted with promises to meet again tomorrow, and even some talk of a football match.
I was just starting back to the trenches when an older German clutched my arm. “My God,” he said, “why cannot we have peace and all go home?”
I told him gently, “That you must ask your emperor.”
He looked at me then, searchingly. “Perhaps, my friend. But also we must ask our hearts.”
And so, dear sister, tell me, has there ever been such a Christmas Eve in all history? And what does it all mean, this impossible befriending of enemies?
For the fighting here, of course, it means regrettably little. Decent fellows those soldiers may be, but they follow orders and we do the same. Besides, we are here to stop their army and send it home, and never could we shirk that duty.
Still, one cannot help imagine what would happen if the spirit shown here were caught by the nations of the world. Of course, disputes must always arise. But what if our leaders were to offer well wishes in place of warnings? Songs in place of slurs? Presents in place of reprisals? Would not all war end at once?
All nations say they want peace. Yet on this Christmas morning, I wonder if we want it quite enough.
Your loving brother, Tom
This recounting of this true event was written by Aaron Shepherd and he has truly captured the truth of this story that has in time become a myth, true mostly on the outside and true on the inside.
If we truly long for the Messiah, for that peace, than we too can hear the songs of the angels’ in the night sky. These soldiers heard it and joined in. They touched the deep inner truth of the myth and held it. They knew that it was in this story of a child who comes to us as a bearer of peace that true salvation and wholeness are found. And for a time they lived it and by their witness asked us all to choose the truer story. The question remains—do we want peace enough? It is possible. The story sings across time and space if our hearts can perceive the angelic host in the stars and the heavenly hosts. The longed for Messiah is here with us if we can embrace it and allow his life to transform ours. It can happen, it does happen. But we, like those soldiers and shepherds must get up and go to Bethlehem to see this thing that God has made known to us.