Padre Paul’s Ponderings: The Light in the Darkness

Sometimes it can be easy to look at the state of affairs in the world and lose hope. But
what if we looked at the state of the world and looked at the people around us and
instead decided to respond with hope? What might happen?

Certainly among many there was little hope when World War I broke out in Europe, and
it became clear that it would be a long war claiming many lives. And while it was known
as the “war to end all wars” as we tragically know, it wasn’t long before another major
war began.

While the reasons for the outbreak of war can fill books, one of the things that is clear
from World War I is that on the one hand, governments tried to stir up their people to
hate the enemy. In 1914 when war broke out in Europe, The high command of both
sides were posed with the challenge of keeping a fighting spirit going by helping the
soldiers to understand just how awful the other side was. And so in World War I,
governments engaged in propaganda the likes of which had never before been seen.
Germans for instance were alleged to have bayoneted small children and attacked
women, and this was why they had to be stopped. In the words of one historian, you
needed a deep moral hatred of your enemy to stop him, and you could not think of him
as just an opponent. You had to hate and to want to kill him.

Indeed, inside humans can be a lot of hate. From Cain killing his brother Abel to the
wars and violence through the centuries that has happened between people of different
countries and religions to right under the roofs of people’s homes in families, humans
can do horrible things to one another. Just look at what we did to God on the Cross.
But the thing of it is, is that despite the cruelty and evil people are capable of, so much
greater is the power of love. God sees this potential in us, which is why the birth of
Christ takes place. And while the power of evil is always there, so much greater is also
the power of good.

As the Great War unfolded, the strategy of appealing to the worst in humanity seemed
to be working as despite the stalemate, fighting was constant with each side firing over
the trenches at one another. And in an effort to boost morale, the Allied High Command
ordered an offensive on December 19th. However, it has the opposite effect. No ground
is gained, and both sides are slaughtered in the largest numbers of the war to date.
Retreating back to the trenches, morale is as low as it has ever been. Christmas is just
6 days away, and everyone knows they will not be home for Christmas.

Both sides do try to cheer up the troops, as letters and warm clothes and gifts are sent
to the front lines from the public. But as it turns out, something very unexpected would
do much to boost morale and it’s certainly something the High Command would not
approve of. And that was the inherent goodness in humanity showing itself.

On Christmas Eve in 1914, in the fifth month of the Great War, Allied soldiers are
astonished by what they see and hear. At first, they think it’s some kind of trick. There
are lights from the German trenches and songs being sung. “Silent Night” is heard in
German, and British Private Frank Sumter recognizes this hymn and so encourages his
side to sing as well, in English. And in some spots along the front, you have the same
song being sung at the same time in different languages.

It was an astonishing sight, but what happened the next day was even more amazing.
Lt. Bruce Banirsfather, a soldier and an artist, fell asleep that night dreaming of a
messenger coming across No Man’s Land with the message that the war was off and
people could go home. That proved to be a dream, but emerging in No Man’s Land was
a German soldier. He had a tree with candles on it. Now at this point, the Christmas
Tree was not known in Europe; only Germans had the tree, and so to the Allied soldiers
this tree with candles was rather strange. But it was a gesture and one by one, the
British began to pop their heads out of the trench. Private Leslie Walkington who was
there that day said at first they were quite scared, as you were told to kill these other
people, but then really you realize that these young boys were not made to kill one
another and were really just afraid of one another.

Others that morning said “if he can do it we can do it” and on both sides, men began to
emerge from the trenches. They walked into No Man’s Land, and shook hands. Initially
they were afraid, but after they shook hands, they realized that the other side was not
what the Propaganda Machine from the government had made them out to be. A mutual
consent emerged that there would be no fighting that day, and now they were shaking
hands, laughing and talking.

As they spent the day over the trenches, a spirit of friendship emerged. They talked and
conversed; they played soccer together. Barbara Littlejohn, the daughter of a soldier,
also remembers her dad telling her how a German cut the hair of a British soldier for
him. One British Soldier wrote: “My dear father, mother and girls; just a line to let you
know that I’ve had quite a merry Christmas to talk about. Never saw a friendlier sight;
one officer took a photo of troops from both sides; they met in no man’s land from both
sides and swapped cigarettes and it was rather like a crowd at a football match. We
exchanged bits of food, just like a lot of boys from neighboring schools.” And they also
saw for the first time the horrors of war and what it was doing to both sides. Dead
bodies were in many places; and each side showed respect. Robert Renton, a British
Corporal, writes of how Germans would join the British in burying French soldiers. They
also found the hate they had been taught was unfounded, as they really were not all
that different from one another. One British soldier found that his uncle and the uncle of
the German worked close by one another. Another actually borrowed a German helmet
and returned it to the German soldier later in the day – an incredible act of trust.

While sadly fighting resumed the next day, in one moment of darkness this was
changed in a most unexpected way – the singing of some troops causing others to sing,
and the brave actions of a man bringing a Christmas tree to others.

There’s no getting around people do horrible things to one another. But as we celebrate
the coming feast of Christmas and mark this Third Sunday of Advent with the rose
colored candle that reminds us to rejoice, may we never forget that inside all of us is the
power to do so much good for one another.

With that in mind, as we finish up the gift buying and head into Christmas, may we strive
to be the light in the darkness in the lives of others. Just as a simple action daily can do
so much – let’s make sure our eyes are always open for new ways to bring joy into
people’s hearts and souls, not just one day a year, but every day.

God bless,

Fr. Paul