May We Be the Light in the Darkness
In the first reading on Christmas, we will hear the words from Isaiah 9:
“The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
a light has shone.”
Like John the Baptist, you and I as Christians see the Light of Christ, but we also must be the Light of Christ to a world that can at times be pretty dark.
One of my favorite stories of this happening in one of the darkest periods of human history was the story of the Christmas Truce; it took place during World War I, and Deacon Sam from my first parish of Holy Name of Jesus loved the story so much that he had a tradition of telling it each Christmas Eve before Mass began. The story goes to show you the power of love; of what happens when a person takes the light of Christ and shows it to others.
In 1914 when war broke out in Europe, the high command of both sides were posed with the challenge of keeping a fighting spirit going by helping the soldiers to understand just how awful the other side was. And so in World War I, governments engaged in propaganda the likes of which had never before been seen. Germans for instance were alleged to have bayoneted small children and attacked women, and this was why they had to be stopped. In the words of one historian, you needed a deep moral hatred of your enemy to stop him, and you could not think of him as just an opponent. You had to hate and to want to kill him.
The strategy seemed to be working as despite the stalemate, fighting was constant with each side firing over the trenches at one another. And in an effort to boost morale, the Allied High Command ordered an offensive on December 19th. However, it had the opposite effect. No ground was gained, and both sides suffered heavy losses. Retreating back to the trenches, morale was as low as it had ever been. Christmas was just 6 days away, and everyone knew they would not be home for Christmas.
Both sides did try to cheer up the troops, as letters and warm clothes and gifts were sent to the front lines from the public. But as it turned out, something very unexpected would do much to boost morale and it’s certainly something the High Command would not approve of.
On Christmas Eve in 1914, in the fifth month of the Great War, Allied soldiers are astonished by what they see and hear. At first, they think it’s some kind of trick. There are lights from the German trenches and songs being sung. “Silent Night” is heard in German, and British Private Frank Sumter recognizes this hymn and so encourages his side to sing as well, in English. And in some spots along the front, you have the same song being sung at the same time in different languages.
It was an astonishing sight, but what happened the next day was even more amazing. Lt. Bruce Banirsfather, a soldier and an artist, fell asleep that night dreaming of a messenger coming across No Man’s Land with the message that the war was off and people could go home. That proved to be a dream, but emerging in No Man’s Land was a German soldier. He had a tree with candles on it. Now at this point, the Christmas Tree was not widely known in Europe; only Germans had the tree, and so to the Allied soldiers this tree with candles was rather strange. But it was a gesture and one by one, the British began to pop their heads out of the trenches. Private Leslie Walkington who was there that day said at first they were quite scared, as you were told to kill these other people, but then really you realize that these young boys were not made to kill one another and were really just afraid of one another.
Others that morning said “if he can do it we can do it” and on both sides, men began to emerge from the trenches. They walked into No Man’s Land, and shook hands. Initially they were afraid, but after they shook hands, they realized that the other side was not what the Propaganda Machine from the government had made them out to be. A mutual consent emerged that there would be no fighting that day, and now they were shaking hands, laughing and talking.
As they spent the day over the trenches, a spirit of friendship emerged. They talked and conversed; they played soccer together. And they also saw for the first time the horrors of war and what it was doing to both sides. Dead bodies were in many places; and each side showed respect. Robert Renton, a British Corporal, writes of how Germans would join the British in burying French soldiers. They also found the hate they had been taught was unfounded, as they really were not all that different from one another. One British soldier found that his uncle and the uncle of the German worked close by one another. Another actually borrowed a German helmet and returned it to the German soldier later in the day – an incredible act of trust.
While sadly fighting resumed the next day, in one moment of darkness this was changed in a most unexpected way – the singing of some troops causing others to sing, and the brave actions of a man bringing a Christmas tree to others.
While World War I may have long since ended, one thing that never ends is the human condition. Sometimes it can be very bleak. On a larger scale, there can be hate for people based on their race or religion, and we can hate people just because they are Muslim, or a Muslim can hate someone just because they are a Christian. And recent times have seen political hate too; how many people go from disagreements to hating someone because they are Republican or Democrat? But what happens when someone breaks through the hate? What happened on that battlefield all those years ago is something we can manifest through bringing light to one another. As I noted in my homily a couple of weeks ago, recalling the story of Mitsuo Fuchida, the commander leading the attack on Pearl Harbor’s conversion, when he noted he realized God is not a warrior or emperor but one who loves all people’s equally, that is so important for us to make as a way of life. People are hurting out there; not just from hate, but even among our own families and friends, people are caught in trench warfare in their lives. Life can beat us down, and at times it can seem bleak and dark. Kids can battle difficult classes, bullies at school, or peer pressure. Grown-ups face financial stress, or sometimes get frustrated with a job where they seem to get little respect. An elderly person may live alone or in assisted living, and be rarely visited. On a larger level, sometimes If we open up our eyes, we can see need all around us. Christmas is a call to action.
With that in mind, as we celebrate Christmas, may we strive to be the light in the darkness in the lives of others. Just as a simple action daily can do so much – let’s make sure our eyes are always open for new ways to bring joy into people’s hearts and souls, not just one day a year, but every day.
God bless, ~Fr. Paul
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