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Earlier this week, I watched an incredible movie I had never seen before about an event that is well known. The movie is called Joyeux Noel and it is about the Christmas Truce of World War I. On December 24, 1914, nearly five months after the beginning of one of the most horrific events in human history, occurred what can only be described as a truly miraculous event. In the midst of heavy combat, a bloody battlefield littered with human remains, and men on the brink of losing their minds, the combatants themselves decided that they should stop fighting each other on Christmas eve.
Most people are aware of the story, at least tangentially, and have a basic understanding of what happened. The night of Christmas eve, soldiers from all sides could hear each other singing Christmas hymns. Not wanting to spoil the moment with gunfire, each side applauded the other from behind their entrenchments as they listened intently to the heavenly sound of hymns heralding in the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace.
That title … Prince of Peace.
What peace could these men have, if not that night, while they are pushed by fat generals safely behind the front lines to maim and slaughter each other with new, terrible weapons of war?
In the 14th chapter of the Gospel of St. John, Our Blessed Lord said, “Peace I leave you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, do I give unto you.” St. Augustine, in one of his sermons, wrote:
“He who is unwilling to observe the testament of peace, cannot arrive at the Lord’s inheritance; nor can he have concord with Christ if he wants to quarrel with his fellow-Christian. Peace is serenity of mind, simplicity of heart, the bond of love, the fellowship of charity.”
Fr. Cornelius a Lapide, in writing on this passage, cites St. Augustine further:
“He leaves peace in this world, and if we abide in it, we overcome the enemy. He will give peace in the world to come, when we shall reign without an enemy. He is our peace, both when we believe that He is, and when we shall see Him as He is. We must observe that when He says, ‘I will give’ He adds ‘my peace,’ wishing us to understand that it is such peace as He hath Himself, in whom there is no fighting, because He hath no sin. But the peace which He leaves us is rather to be called ours, than His. It is such peace as is consistent with the state in which we still say, ‘Forgive us our debts.’ There is peace among ourselves, for we trust and love one another. But it is not full peace, because we do not see the thoughts of one another’s hearts. For Our Lord’s words can also be understood in such a way that the same thought appears to be repeated.”
That night, while the spirit of Christian love and peace still found a home in the hearts of men, these soldiers invited in the Prince of Peace, and it almost ended the war.
After hearing each other sing, soldiers began peeking over the ramparts of their trenches to see the men – Christian men – on the other side. The officers met in the middle of the field to discuss terms of a temporary cease-fire in honor of the birth of the Christ Child. And that night, the men gathered into no-man’s land, exchanging chocolate bars, alcohol, and even bits of their uniforms as a sign of good will. They sang together. They showed each other pictures of their wives. They told stories about their families back home, and some even exchanged addresses in the hopes of finding each other after the war had ended. In some places, where priests were available, Mass was said and attended by all sides.
This is the true Peace brought by Christ. As St. Augustine put it, “There is peace among ourselves, for we trust and love one another.”
The men in the trenches of World War I did not hate their enemy combatants, and on this night, they not only saw the faces of their purported enemies, they felt the warmth of their Christian charity and fellowship.
The next day, the peace continued. In a supreme act of charity, the helped each other bury their dead. They also played games together, some at cards and others of soccer.
The awkwardness came when orders were sent to resume the fighting. How can men shoot at and kill men with whom they had just laughed, cried, prayed and played with?
The movie illustrated the ramifications of Christ’s peace in a world of elite men spurring on those beneath them to commit atrocious deeds. The movie showed the mail corps of each of the nationalities reading through the letters of those Christian soldiers, telling their families of the enemy combatants with whom they spent Christmas eve and day. The generals were outraged. The politicians were incensed. And as a result, because these men refused to kill one another, they were moved to other parts of the front, and for the next three long years, they were fed face-first into the human meat-grinder known as the First World War.
“My peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, do I give unto you.”
The peace of the world is fleeting. In this life, we are only ever given a respite because the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil are with us all the way to the end. And we can see the temporary nature of worldly peace personified in the sneering faces of the world’s elites. How many world leaders tell us that we can only have peace “if,” or we will only find peace “when,” and in order to attain peace we “must.” And yet, on Christmas eve in 1914, men who had been killing each other for five months suddenly found peace all on their own – because they invited the Prince of Peace to be with them.
Just imagine how the history of the 20th century would have changed if the men pushing this war had allowed the Christ Child a moment’s rest in their hearts as well.
As the tumultuous year 2022 comes to a close, I ask you to remember the men of World War I. In one night, they forgave men who only moments before, were trying to kill them; they prayed together; they sang together; and they celebrated the Birth of the Savior of Mankind together. If they can do this, then so can we. If there is anyone in your life with whom you have quarreled, someone you hurt, someone with whom trust was damaged, or even someone with whom there is hatred – remember these men, lay down your arms, climb out of your trench and find the peace with them that only Christ brings.
We at the Lepanto Institute wish you a very Merry and Blessed Christmas!