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WWI Christmas Truce Reflects Humanity at Its Best

A century has almost passed, but it is perhaps one of the most remarkable events to ever occur amid so much hatred and animosity. The significance of the event can only be stated in terms of the miraculous.
It was the eve of Christmas 1914, the first of four celebrated amid abysmal years immersed in trench warfare.

All of Europe had been swept up into World War I in the summer – a conflict that at one time was thought to be the “war to end all wars.”

France, along with its allies, was in a stalemate with Germany and its allies.

A war some thought would be over in a matter of months would turn into years, as each side began digging in, creating mile after mile of muddy, disease-ridden trenches.

In between these trenches were some of the most desolate, barren and hopeless ground ever scorched by the drums of war.

To be caught in this “no man’s land” was an automatic death sentence. And yet, this barren wasteland would become one of the most incredible stories of hope that humanity has ever witnessed.

No one knows for sure how it all started. But, as the legend goes, on the eve of Christmas 1914, the carol “Silent Night” was sung.

By morning, those who had been shooting at each other the day before were in the middle of “no man’s land” sharing photos, playing soccer and celebrating Christmas.

A truce between the French and Germans was called, at least for a day. This truly amazing event, which seems almost too good to be true, is often heralded as a triumph of the Christmas spirit.

Events such as this that point to the eschatological hope found in passages like Isaiah 2:4, Joel 3:10 and Micah 4:3. The day when swords are no longer needed and are beaten into plowshares. A dream of peace and joy for everyone.

This is the very best of what we celebrate during Advent as we await the birth of a baby in a manger.

I love to read stories about remarkable moments in history where, for however brief a time, humanity chooses to see the best in each other instead of the worst.

Yet I wonder if we should read these stories not only for the hope offered, but also for the caution provided.

This truce on Christmas was remarkable, but at the same time inimitable, as the war would drag on for several more years. The truce only lasted one day.

Advent is a beautiful time in the Christian year to celebrate and rejoice. At the same time, it’s a fragile beauty that culminates in the hope of a baby born in a manger.

There are no assurances and annuities to fall back on. No guarantees that come from being born to a powerful political family. At any moment, hope could be wiped out, as King Herod tried to do.

The hope and promise Advent anticipates cannot be taken for granted. They have to be nurtured and cultivated if they are to endure in times of uncertainty.

For me personally, this is why the Christian calendar has become essential to my own faith walk.

Not because I want to protest and show I am defiant to the world around me. Rather, I lean into the rhythms of the calendar because I find it is the best way to nourish my spirit as I strive to see and seek the best in humanity instead of becoming cynical as I experience and see the worst.

I imagine this is what makes the difference between my reading stories like this truce on Christmas, thinking they are myths and believing it is possible for us to rise above our hatred.

This is what allows me to continue to hope for the day when swords and spears are no longer needed.

This is the hope I nourish during Advent and celebrate on Christmas morning, which the Scottish poet Frederick Niven captured so well:

O ye who read this truthful rime
From Flanders, kneel and say:
God speed the time when every day
Shall be as Christmas Day.”

Seth M. Vopat is the associate pastor of youth and family at Louisburg First Baptist Church in Louisburg, Kan., and a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter @svopat.