I don’t usually give a sermon on this weekend of lessons and carols. But I want to tell a story. It’s a story that I have used on several occasion before – a story that is making the rounds on the internet and in news articles – so I’m sure some of you have either read about it, or seen the commercial for a chocolate company that put together a quite fine piece about this. I think you can find it on U-Tube. But it is the true story of something that happened 100 years ago this week. It happened during the opening year of World War I – on a very special Christmas day – December 25, 1914.
It was a welcome respite for a group of lonely English soldiers who had become all too familiar with the roar of cannons and the whine of rifle fire. As they reclined in their trenches, each man began to speculate about the activities of loved ones back home. One man said, “I can almost hear the church bells back home. My whole family will soon be walking out the door to hear the concert of the boys’ choir at the cathedral.”
The men sat silent for several minutes before another soldier looked up and said, “This is eerie, but I can almost hear the choir singing.” “So can I,” shouted another puzzled voice. “I think there’s music coming from the other side.”
The men scrambled to the edge of the trench and listened. What they heard was a few sturdy German voices singing “Von Himmel Hoch,” “From heaven above to earth I come to bear good news to everyone. Glad tidings of great joy I bring to all the world, and gladly sing.”
When the hymn was finished, the English soldiers sat frozen in silence. Then a large man with a powerful voice broke into the chorus of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” A dozen other voices joined in, and soon the entire regiment was singing.
Once again, there was an interlude of silence until a German tenor began to sing, “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.”
"Stille nacht, heilege nacht, alles schlaft, Einsam wacht, nur das Heilege Eltern Paar, das im Stalle zu Bethlehem war, bei dem himmlischen Kind, bei dem himmlischen kind."
Stille Nacht! Heil'ge Nacht! Alles schläft; einsam wacht Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar. Holder Knab' im lockigen Haar, Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh! Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
But this time – oh this time – the song was sung not in one but in two languages – a chorus of a hundred voices echoing back and forth between the trenches “Silent night, holy night! All is calm, all is bright...”
“Someone’s approaching,” a sentry shouted, and attention was focused on a single German soldier, waving a white cloth with one hand, and holding several bars of chocolate in the other. Slowly, men from both sides eased out of their trenches – out into the neutral zone and began to greet one another. The soldiers began sharing what they had with each other. Candy. Cigarettes. Even a bottle of Christmas brandy. Most important, they shared battered, treasured pictures they carried of loved ones.
No one knows whose idea it was to start a football game –what we call soccer – but with the help of flares the field was lit and the British and German soldiers played until they and the lights were exhausted. Then, as quietly as they came together, the men returned to their own trenches.
On Christmas Day, men from both sides again joined together, even visiting the other’s trenches. The German soldiers, wishing to avenge the previous night’s torch-lit football loss, organized another game.
The informal truce spread along much of the 500-mile Western Front, in some cases lasting for days — alarming army commanders – including a young corporal by the name of Adolph Hitler – who feared fraternization would sap the troops' will to fight. But now the enemy was no longer faceless. Now he was an acquaintance who shared a candy bar, or played a game of soccer.
The silence ended early in the afternoon and the killing started again. It was a short peace in a terrible war."
A short peace, yes, because the next year brought the start of battles that claimed 10 million lives. Sadly, the Christmas truce was never repeated, but history tells us that once upon a time, so many years ago, there was a silent, holy night, when the birth of the Christ child drew hostile forces together as brothers, and for a few moments – gave weary soldiers a taste of peace and good will.