It's an old story and it's been told before, time and time again; but it seems to have some new life this year, as it should, inasmuch as it is, for the first time this Christmas, exactly one hundred years old. You must have heard it.
Somewhere out there along muddy battle lines made forever famous for their intransigence, somewhere in darkness lit only by candles, lanterns, and flashlights, somewhere amid the mud huts crudely cut from the walls of unending trenches snake-dancing across the Belgian countryside, somewhere in a war approximating hell itself, one December night German and Brit soldiers decided on a makeshift truce. After all, it was Christmas, and both great armies, impossible as it is to believe, would have called themselves "Christian."
As if out of nowhere, candle-lit trees appeared above the German trenches, and a voice carried across the abyss called "no man's land," or so the story goes, that voice letting the Brits know that a Christmas present was on its way. The Brits burrowed into their holes, expecting a new round of shells or grenades. Instead, there were sausages.
I don't care what anybody says, that's rich. I grew up in a region whose German ancestry still produces the world's best bratwurst, so the fact that the Krauts sent their own first fruits sausages for Christmas is, to me, perfectly priceless.
The Brits retaliated with plum pudding, wonderfully fitting. On a battlefield death zone suddenly it was Christmas, as if an angel had appeared on high and out of nowhere, telling the world to fear not. Real peace on earth seemed to come from heaven, like a baby in a manger.
Singing is part of the story, too, as you may remember--happy songs, patriotic songs, and then finally, in a makeshift chorus composed of enemy voices, "Silent Night." If nothing else happened that Christmas--no sausages, no soccer, no handshakes, no gift-swapping--the entire story would be worth telling over and over again, simply because, at least to me, no Christmas carol is quite so moving as "Stille Nacht," and no rendition quite so perfect as that one. Simply to imagine that old carol being sung on a battlefield one dark and winter-cold Christmas Eve, just to imagine that hymn that night warms the soul.
What followed was 46 months of men dying at the rate of 6000 a day. Really, that 1914 Christian anomaly made zero difference in the War to End All Wars. Zero.
Still, that night, those sausages and that perfect carol is worth remembering because not to believe is to give in to the darkness. Not to believe is to duck in the trenches. Hope is a thing eternal.
Few stories I know so comprehensively capture human complexity. We are, at once, carriers of God's own image and hateful creatures of the darkness. Both/and, not either/or.
That the famous Christmas fraternization of 1914 didn't last is not why you and I have been telling that story for 100 years.
Hope is the heart of things. Hope is eternal.
This morning I'm thankful for the birthday of an old story that's 100 years old this week, a story that will be forever worth telling.