Christmas Eve 1914 did not begin as a time of joy for those on the front lines of what H.G. Wells called “The War That Will End War.” We now know it as the First World War, but if those British, French, Belgian and German soldiers in the trenches in places like Ypres in West Flanders had been in charge not only might it have been the last war but it would have ended fittingly on the eve of the Nativity of the Prince of Peace.
In early December 1914 Pope Benedict XV had called for a Christmas truce, which was summarily rejected. In this plea the Holy Father was recalling the Catholic tradition known in the Middle Ages as the Truce of God (Treuga Dei). When paired with the Peace of God (Pax Dei) it held the barbarism of war at bay and spawned the movement we now know as chivalry.
The Peace of God held that non-combatants like the clergy and civilians – especially women, children, travelers, and the peasant class – were to be spared the violence of war. This went beyond their own personal safety to include their property, farms and animals. The punishment for things like robbing a church or stealing cattle was excommunication.
Similarly, the Truce of God was meant to limit the violence of war, but by banning combat on certain days. For example, the Truce forbade battle during both Advent and Lent and grew to include prohibitions on holy days as well as certain days of the week – for example, Thursdays because of the Ascension and Fridays because of the Crucifixion. By the 12th Century the Church had placed so many days under the Truce that there were around eighty (non-contiguous) days each year where fighting could, according to canon law, take place.
In the age of Christendom those in command during war might not have been too happy to suspend fighting, but they basically had no choice. Personal excommunication and the threat of interdict – where a whole territory would have its sacramental life suspended – kept the royalty in their place. No king, prince, or duke would want an internal uprising caused because of the local clergy’s inability to baptize infants, hear confessions, say Mass, and bury the dead.
But by the time of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June of 1914 the religious and political climate of Europe had dramatically changed. The archduke may have been able to claim lineage to the Holy Roman Emperors of the past, but that Empire and the hegemony of the Catholic Church within it was long gone. Therefore, in this modern and divided Europe it was left to the soldiers themselves to strike a Truce of God.
The space between the trenches of the Germans and those of their various enemies was known as “no man’s land” where the corpses of those who tried to advance lay unburied as a reminder of why that stretch of land – often as narrow as one hundred feet – earned its frightful moniker. But on Christmas Eve 1914 no man’s land was transformed into sacred ground and a momentary fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah.
The British sang carols in their trenches and the Germans propped Christmas trees and wreaths on the ground above their heads. These signs and others led some brave souls to climb up out of their trenches and begin that life-threatening walk toward the enemy. When the soldiers met in the middle they greeted each other – most often in English since many Germans had at least a rudimentary knowledge – and proceeded to exchange food, drink, and even gifts.
Most famously, they played an impromptu soccer game, now fittingly commemorated in a statue outside of St. Luke’s Church in Liverpool. The statue, titled “All Together Now,” shows a German and British soldier bending forward to shake hands, a football at their feet. Sadly, that church was bombed in 1941 during the Blitz that was a part of daily English life during the war that followed the war that was to end war.
In the first reading at Midnight Mass the words of Isaiah seem to speak directly to that brave group of soldiers “who walked in darkness” and “have seen a great light.” To those war-weary combatants “who dwelt in the land of gloom” for whom “a light has shown.” That light has a focus, and that focus is a stable where “a child is born to us, a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.”
Had those soldiers extended their truce past December 26th then maybe the war to end war would itself have died rather than the seventeen million young men who gave their lives at the altar of Moloch.
And yet, the Prince of Peace Who brought them out of their trenches is born again, as He is each year, and so there is still hope for us. We who today recall this beautiful moment amidst terrible tragedy have a duty to honor the men who looked to no general or politician to get permission to institute the Truce of God on the blood-soaked fields of Belgium at Christmas of 1914. We must look where they looked: to the God Hero and Prince of Peace. For there lies our only hope.
May you and all you love have a blessed and hope-filled Christmas.