Bishop Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
Homily for Christmas 2007
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." Isaiah 9:1
On this Christmas night, while we celebrate our faith in the newborn Christ in relative warmth and safety, we must not forget our men and women in the armed forces who face danger in foreign lands. May the Prince of Peace bring them protection and peace. And as I recall their sacrifices, I am reminded of another Christmas in another war almost one hundred years ago.
This true story takes place on the first Christmas Day in the colossal struggle now known as the First World War. The monumental conflict between the nations of Europe had begun in what Barbara Tuchman called the "Guns of August", 1914. There were great hopes that the war would be over by Christmas. Millions of soldiers, however, were to become hopelessly bogged down in four more years of bloodshed. The losses were staggering. By Christmas of 1914, the French alone counted 300,000 dead and 600,000 wounded or missing. A line of trenches stretched for over 470 miles from Switzerland to the English Channel. The world had never seen such carnage.
As Christmas Eve fell, a sound like no other drifted across the no-man¹s land between the opposing trenches. Guns were silenced. The French, English, and Germans heard the sound of singing. Each was singing Christmas carols in their own language. Enemies realized they had a common bond, the bond of faith. A blanket of peace, like snow, spread gently over the trenches. Diaries of the soldiers themselves speak of what happened next. The enemy offices exchanged souvenirs. The British gave the Germans plum pudding, and the Germans helped the British bury their fallen. French legionaries exchanged chocolates with the Germans. As one British officer described it, by Christmas morning at 10 o¹clock, "Šthe ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas" (from "The First World War" by Martin Gilbert). The war-weary soldiers had declared their own truce inspired by the birth of the Prince of Peace.
This true story reminds me of the immortal lines of Shakespeare from Hamlet. "Wherein our Saviour¹s birth is celebrated/ The bird of dawning singeth all night long,/ And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,/ The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,/ ŠSo hallow¹d and so gracious is the time" (Hamlet, Act I, Scene 1). The incident of enemy soldiers laying down their arms would have been magic, except for the fact that it was real, as real as the Prince of Peace.
But it was not to last. Christian civilization was taking its last gasp. When the British General Staff heard of the spontaneous Christmas truce, the generals "issued orders saying that such unwarlike activity must cease" (from Gun Fire, a Journal of First World War History, ed. A. J. Peacock). Christmas had become "unwarlike activity", a comment worthy of a modern secularist.
Death and life met on that Christmas Day in 1914. Something died, and something lived. Secularism and materialism have destroyed nations built on a Christian ideal, but Christian faith still lives. As Isaiah insists, "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light" (Isaiah 9:1). Great lights are never extinguished. Secularism and appeals to sensitivity and correctness can strip and divest Christmas of its symbols, but the grace, that brought peace to warring men, lives on. "The grace of God has appeared," St. Paul will tell us (Titus 2:11). And when the grace of God takes flesh in a virgin and enters the world in a cattle trough warmed only by the breath of donkeys, then we know love can and does exist, because no secular force can stand before the power of such simplicity. The powers that be can remove every nativity scene they wish, change "Merry Christmas" into "Happy Holidays", reduce the sublime to the ridiculous, but a "virgin shall conceive and bear a son," and His name will be "¹ God is with us¹" (Matthew 1:23). Some things cannot die because they are true. Because there is Christmas, the hope lives on that love exists and can take flesh.
And so, I wish you a Merry Christmas. Do not forget who you are. As you settle down to your Christmas dinners and open your gifts, remember what brings you together. Remember that you are Christians. We are Christians who hear muffled cries from a manger. Shepherds leap up and run to Bethlehem. Wise men plot their journey, and love calls us to Bethlehem. One soldier in his diary described the Christmas of 1914 as the "Most peculiar Christmas I¹ve every spent." Never had he seen the power of an infant child bring opposing armies to peace. May Christmas reveal its "peculiar" peace to you, a peace the world cannot give and a peace no one can take from you.