One of the ways that being a regular reader of Lew Rockwell’s site enriches me is learning crucial things I’d never known before. Oftentimes there are alternative perspectives on politics and economics and current events—essentially focused on the machinations of government—but sometimes there are posts and articles that introduced me to moments in history captured in works of art that I’d never known existed.
While I did know generally about the Christmas Truce of 1914, through Lew’s site I discovered Stanley Weintraub’s book Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, in an essay written by William Norman Grigg and published on Christmas Day 2008. I cannot improve upon the power of Mr. Grigg’s words:Mr. Grigg’s words:
Wallowing in what amounted to cold, fetid sewers, pelted by freezing rain, and surrounded by the decaying remains of their comrades, soldiers on both sides grimly maintained their military discipline. On December 7th, Pope Benedict XV called for a Christmas cease-fire. This suggestion earned little enthusiasm from political and military leaders on both sides. But the story was different for the exhausted frontline troops.
A December 4th dispatch from the commander of the British II Corps took disapproving notice of a “live-and-let-live theory of life” that had descended on the Front. Although little overt fraternization was seen between hostile forces, just as little initiative was shown in pressing potential advantages. Neither side fired at the other during meal times, and friendly comments were frequently bandied about across No Man’s Land. In a letter published by the Edinburgh Scotsman, Andrew Todd of the Royal Engineers reported that soldiers along his stretch of the Front, “only 60 yards apart at one place …[had become] very ‘pally’ with each other.” Christmas With Kiri Te... Best Price: $8.16 Buy New $13.43 (as of 12:15 EDT - Details)
Rather than flinging lead at their opponents, the troops would occasionally hurl newspapers (weighted with stones) and ration tins across the lines. Barrages of insults sometimes erupted as well, but they were delivered “generally with less venom than a couple of London cabbies after a mild collision,” reported Leslie Walkinton of the Queen’s Westminster Rifles.
As December waxed, the combat ardor of the frontline troops waned. With Christmas approaching, the scattered and infrequent gestures of goodwill across enemy lines increased. About a week before Christmas, German troops near Armentieres slipped a “splendid” chocolate cake across the lines to their British counterparts. Attached to that delectable peace offering was a remarkable invitation:
We propose having a concert tonight as it is our Captain’s birthday, and we cordially invite you to attend—provided you will give us your word of honor as guests that you agree to cease hostilities between 7:30 and 8:30….When you see us light the candles and footlights at the edge of our trench at 7:30 sharp you can safely put your heads above your trenches, and we shall do the same, and begin the concert…
The radiant Christmas trees reminded some Indian conscripts of lanterns used to celebrate the Hindu “Festival of Lights.” Some of them must have been puzzled over finding themselves freezing, undernourished, and confronting a lonely death thousands of miles from their homes as soldiers in a war which pitted Christian nations against each other. “Do not think that this is war,” wrote one Punjabi soldier in a letter to a relative. “This is not war. It is the ending of the world.”
But there were souls on each side of that fratricidal conflict determined to preserve the decencies of Christendom, even amid the Joyeux Noel (Widescreen) Best Price: $3.49 Buy New $7.90 (as of 12:10 EDT - Details) conflict. As Christmas dawned, German Saxon troops shouted greetings to the British unit across from it: “A happy Christmas to you, Englishmen!” That welcome greeting prompted a mock-insulting reply from one of the Scottish troops, who was mildly irritated at being called an Englishman: “The same to you Fritz, but dinna o’er eat youself wi’ they sausages!”
Weintraub’s book details this peace that was all too brief, when men remembered they were brothers in Christ; the story was also powerfully captured in the French film Joyeux Noël, which Butler Shaffer discussed in his blog post A Silent Night in Wartime—again, a film I hadn’t known existed before reading Lew’s site.
Why the story of the Christmas truce has particular resonance with me—especially now—is that I believe the true spirit of Christ was alive in those men that day who reached out to one another in their shared suffering, who carrying Christmas trees aglow with candles literally brought light into the darkness.
Recently perusal of not only Lew Rockwell’s site but any major alternative news site shows how spiritually perilous our times are now and I have no desire in this essay to discuss any such horrors, whether of war or of deception, or even the recent vandalism of monuments sacred to Christians.
Yet it seems to me that the human spirit is capable of so much more than violence and lies, and inspired by a true understanding of Christ and what He means, how those who follow him must act as He would and that to me is the story of the Christmas Truce.
On the centennial anniversary of the Christmas Truce, a British firm, Sainsbury’s, produced a commercial that featured the truce, which is on YouTube, prompting complaints by the hundreds. I myself didn’t find it cynical. In fact, I applaud no matter the flaws anything to get Mark: The Gospel of Ac... Best Price: $2.49 Buy New $4.00 (as of 04:50 EDT - Details) people to remember Christ saying (John 13:34): “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”
I hope that this Christmas amidst our celebrations we recall those words that are more than words; they are in part an essential teaching how to live a better life, how to become closer to God in a world that each day tries harder and harder to separate the bond of love between our Creator and us.
Caesar still lives, only with a different name, for we can identify him now as the states of the world: America, Russia, the EU. And Caesar still makes arrogant demands upon us; the soldiers serving in the trenches during the World War I understood one such demand.
Christ Himself discussed the dilemma of the two opposing forces—Caesar and God—and I want to share the inspired insight of scholar Mark Earle from his Mark: The Gospel of Action (Everyman’s Bible Commentary):
The Sanhedrin had publicly challenged Jesus’ authority and been silenced. Now it tried another tactic. It sent a delegation of Pharisees and Herodians to “catch him in his words” (v. 13)—literally, “by a word” or “in a statement.” The verb for catch, found only here in the New Testament, meant “to catch or take by hunting or fishing.” The hope was that Jesus could be trapped into making some statement that would get Him into trouble.
The insincerity of these questioners is shown in their flattering approach to Jesus: “Master [Teacher], we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person [lit., face] of men, but teachest the way of God in truth” (v. 14). He always taught the truth! He didn’t care what men thought about it, not even the Roman authorities! With this “softening up” process they hoped they had thrown Jesus off His guard. Then they moved in quickly with their catch question: Silent Night: The Stor... Best Price: $1.98 Buy New $40.98 (as of 10:05 EDT - Details)
“Is it lawful to give tribute [pay a poll tax] to Caesar, or not?”
They thought they had Him caught on the horns of a dilemma. If He said no, the Herodians would have reported Him to the Roman authorities as a dangerous teacher who was trying to turn the populace against the government. If He said yes, the Pharisees would tell the people, “See, He is not the Messiah. Instead of delivering us from foreign oppression, He is telling us to submit to it.” Whichever way He answered, He would be in trouble.
But Jesus, “knowing their hypocrisy” (v. 15), asked for a “penny.” This was the Roman denarius, a silver coin (see comment at 6: 37) used for paying the poll tax. The Jews especially hated this coin because it had on it the image of the emperor, the reigning Tiberius, as well as his superscription, “Tiberius Caesar, August son of the August God.” To them it was a symbol of heathen domination of God’s chosen people. The Pharisees knew that if Jesus endorsed the paying of the poll tax He would lose the confidence of the common people. Of course, this is what they wanted.
Turning the coin over in His hand, Jesus asked, “Whose is this image and superscription?” They answered, “Caesar’s” (v. 16). Then He neatly walked out of their trap by making the simple, logical statement: “Render [give back] to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (v. 17). In other words, “If this coin bears Caesar’s picture and name, it must belong to him. And whatever belongs to him you should give back to him.” One can almost hear in the overtones of Jesus’ voice “Why are you carrying Caesar’s picture around in your purse if you hate him so?” And then for good measure the Master added, “and to God the things that are God’s.” If the Jews had given to God what belonged to Him, they would not now be having to give taxes to Caesar. Erasmus made this excellent observation: “Give back to God that which has the image and superscription of God—the soul.” Son of Thunder: The Sp... Best Price: $22.96 Buy New $12.00 (as of 08:10 EDT - Details)
Someone has said of Jesus here, “He vaulted over the trap set for him, leaving them entangled in it.” No wonder that “they marvelled at him.”
What most matters in this life, in this world are not in the dominion of Caesar; I think that truth too is implicit. What affects the soul is how we choose to act in a world governed by Caesar, a world whose prince is of darkness incarnate. Like the soldiers in the trenches, and there will be times when we must choose what to render; we can choose whom we must obey—God or Caesar—not that the choice will be without consequences. The Way of Christ is different from all other religions; He alone suffers with us. Each of us will know in our heart when we are called to become closer to God; the sacrifices will be grave, perhaps painful but those of faith understand they are the right, if not the only choice, as did the soldiers fighting the most important battle of World War I, fighting during the truce on the side of God, the God of love and for the Prince of Peace.
Christ challenged Caesar; he challenges him still. As so as Joseph Sobran noted, He is hated to this day.
This Christmas, I hope men and women of faith remember what it means to serve God, to follow Christ, to trust God. We that do shall not have an easy path nor are we promised one; yet our destination and the rightness of our action justifies our suffering and we know that we shall not suffer alone.
Let me end with the inspired words of poet Christina Rossetti from In the Bleak Midwinter, which is also one of my favorite Christmas The Cloak of Freya: Th... Buy New $14.00 (as of 08:15 EDT - Details) carols with music by Holst—simple words and melody capturing the miracle of the sacred infinite incarnate in an infant who brought us the most precious gift, something altogether unimaginable, yet, to we who believe, a miracle.
(You can view a beautiful performance of In the Bleak Midwinter featuring soprano Kiri Te Kanawa here, which is also available on this DVD; Dame Kiri Te Kanawa was kind enough to post the entire concert of Carols from Coventry Cathedral at her YouTube page here.)
|In the bleak mid-winter|
|Frosty wind made moan,|
|Earth stood hard as iron,|
|Water like a stone;|
|Snow had fallen, snow on snow,|
|Snow on snow,|
|In the bleak mid-winter|
|Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him|
|Nor earth sustain;|
|Heaven and earth shall flee away|
|When He comes to reign:|
|In the bleak mid-winter|
|A stable-place sufficed|
|The Lord God Almighty,|
|Enough for Him, whom cherubim|
|Worship night and day,|
|A breastful of milk,|
|And a mangerful of hay;|
|Enough for Him, whom angels|
|Fall down before,|
|The ox and ass and camel|
|Angels and archangels|
|May have gathered there,|
|Cherubim and seraphim|
|Thronged the air –|
|But only His mother|
|In her maiden bliss|
|Worshipped the Beloved|
|With a kiss.|
|What can I give Him,|
|Poor as I am?|
|If I were a shepherd|
|I would bring a lamb;|
|If I were a wise man|
|I would do my part;|
|Yet what I can, I give Him –|
|Give my heart.|