It was December 1914. Europe was in turmoil—men from warring nations left empty chairs at Christmas dinner tables. Germany and Britain had become definite enemies. Peace, the “well being” kind of shalom, was definitely absent on the front lines, absent from the villages, absent from the seats of power….
That Christmas, a group of women in Britain wrote an open letter to the women of Germany, women of “the enemy nation” who shared the same pain of losing husbands and sons and fathers to war. The letter starts out like this: “Some of us wish to send you a word at this sad Christmastide…The Christmas message sounds like a mockery to a world at war, but those of us who wished and still wish for peace may surely offer a solemn greeting to such of you who feel as we do…..We pray you to believe that come what may, we hold to our faith in Peace and Goodwill among nations; while technically at enmity in obedience to our rulers, we own allegiance to a higher law which bids us live at peace with all men.” Sounds a whole lot like the message on the angels’ lips. The ladies could not mail the letter directly to Germany, but had to route it through the US first. So their Christmas greetings were received the next spring, definitely still apropo, as the war continued to rage.
That same December, 1914, Pope Benedict XV, formally asked for a truce between the warring governments: “Can not the guns fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang?” No official truce was declared, but the stories have been passed down for 100 years about the Christmas truce which did take place in multiple locations on the frontlines of battle between German and British forces. In one place, Germans placed little Christmas trees along the trenches and lit them with candles. The Christmas Truce was an impromptu, one time only agreement to stop the fighting in order to acknowledge the birth of Christ, the prince of peace. Christmas greetings were shouted out, carols were exchanged, food rations shared, and a brief respite from enmity marked the night the angels sang that year.
The angels’ message is what came upon the midnight clear in Dr. Edmund Sears’ poem which we sang a few minutes ago. Based on the encounter between the shepherds and the angels in Luke chapter 2, he used the poem to close his Christmas Eve sermon at a Unitarian Church in a small town west of Boston in 1849. This pastor knew areas of poverty in his community, and the harsh conditions some of his neighbors faced on a daily basis. He was acutely aware of the conflict brewing around the country over slavery. He saw a nation beginning to fray around the edges. He was looking for a Christmas message in a sad Christmastide, a Christmas message to a weary, lowly, suffering world. From his perspective, the noise of war drowned out the angels’ song of peace on the earth, good will to all from heaven’s all gracious King. Although Luke mentions no actual singing, Sears interprets the angels’ message as a song, a song praising God and proclaiming God’s good news of peace to those who are bent down, those who are being crushed by the heavy load of life.
It is December once again. And it is the night the angels sang. And we still face a sad Christmastide in the midst of war, strife, conflict, violence, enmity. And we still are surrounded by people who are bent down, people who are being crushed by the heavy load of life. I want to raise the same question asked by the Pope a century ago: can we not silence the guns, stop the war, drop the drug deals, and make a Christmas Truce around the world at least on the night the angels sang? If we can’t, we run the risk of not hearing the song, of missing the message of peace. In 2015, it is a message we can not afford to miss.
I am not much of a poet like Rev. Sears. But I would like to end my Christmas message to you and to our weary world with the words of a poem turned into a song sung in the 1970’s by a British based pop group called The New Seekers. If you are my age or older, you will recognize the words from a very popular coca cola commercial as well. The words echo the words of the angels on that midnight clear. They describe that day which Sears imagined, when peace would be flung over the earth and the whole world would give back the angels’ song of peace on earth, good will to all, from heaven’s all-gracious King.
“I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I’d like to hold it in my arms
And keep it company
I’d like to see the world for once
All standing hand in hand
And hear them echo through the hills
For peace throughout the land
That’s the song I hear… Let the world sing today
A song of peace that echoes on and never goes away.”
If that is not the Christmas message, I don’t know what is. Amen.