by the Rev. James B. Craven III
More than 300,000 deaths so far in this country.
More deaths every day than at Pearl Harbor or 9/11. A country more polarized or divided than at any time since the Civil War more than 150 years ago. Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas without the family. Baseball and football just barely. An election like no other.
As the King reminds us in Hamlet, “When sorrows come, they come not in single spies, but in battalions.”
Has there been a year like this? Well yes, there has. On December 22, 1941, two weeks after Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill arrived in Washington, for a three week visit to the White House. Look at a map or an atlas, unless you are old enough to have studied geography in school. Western and Eastern Europe, from Moscow to the Atlantic coast, Scandinavia, the Mediterranean, Greece, all of North Africa, were occupied by Hitler’s Nazis. Only 21 miles of blessed English Channel, a moat defensive to a house, as John of Gaunt called it in Richard II, stood between Brittan and Hitler. The Japanese held all of East Asia, most of China, Malaya, Hong Kong, and Singapore, and were threatening and shelling Australia. Make no mistake about it. We were losing the war and there was little cause for optimism. Our Navy was reduced initially after Pearl Harbor to its submarine force, commanded in the southwest Pacific by Rosalie Fonda’s father, who miraculously made his way to Australia after the Japanese attacked the Philippines.
On Christmas Eve, President Roosevelt and Churchill addressed the nation on radio. FDR noted:
“There are many men and women in America-sincere and
faithful men and women-who asked themselves this
Christmas: “How can we light our trees?” said Roosevelt,
Standing on his steel braces before radio microphones. “How can we meet and
worship with love and with uplifted hearts in a world at war,
a world of fighting and suffering and death?” Roosevelt
believed that when people armed their hearts, the nation would
endure and achieve victory. “Our strongest weapon in the war
is that conviction of the dignity and brotherhood of man which
Christmas day signifies-more than any other day or any other
symbol. Against enemies who preach the principles of hate and
practice them, we set our faith in human love and in God’s care
for us and all men everywhere.” To encourage “the arming of our
Hearts,” he issued a proclamation, declaring January 1 a national
day of prayer.
Churchill also spoke, noting that his mother was an American, and
how he treasured his friendships here. “I spend this anniversary
and festival far from country, far from my family, and yet I cannot
truthfully say that I feel far from home,” he said. On this “strange
Christmas eve,” he dedicated the night and holiday to children,
giving them one night of wonder without the cares of the war,
“Make the children happy in a world of storm,” he told the
American public. “Now, by our sacrifice and daring, these same
children shall not be robbed of their inheritance, or denied the right
to live in a free and decent world.”
The two great leaders went to the midnight service that night at Christ Church in Alexandria, where they sat in George Washington’s pew.
So yes, this is a very strange Christmas, though not a unique one. We can still give our children, children of all ages, one night of wonder without the cares of COVID and division. We can make them happy in a world of storm.
Christmas 1915 also came when times were hard, in what became known as the Great War. Rather than all quiet on the western front, it was wholesale slaughter on the western front, and truly an entire generation of German, French, and British men perished. Even there though, good sense and Christmas were allowed to break through, with light in the darkness.
It was Christmas 1915 in the trenches of France. The 1st Battalion of the Bavarian 16th Regiment faced the Manchesters and Devonshires across no man’s land. It was 3 AM on a star-bright night, everything frozen solid. At first light both sides left the trenches. The Bavarians brought a Christmas tree, lit its candles, and rang bells. They embraced the British Tommies. The only star in the sky was directly above them, and they all saw it as a special sign from heaven. An Englishman borrowed a German harmonica and played while the men danced. They exchanged helmets and sang Christmas carols, the Germans singing Stille Nacht and the British Silent Night. A German soldier wrote:
For the rest of my life, I shall never forget
this scene. Human feelings and warmth go on
even if, in these times, men seem to know little
beyond killing and murdering.
The two opposing sides buried their dead together, they exchanged cigarettes, chocolate, and addresses back home. They sang together and kicked a football. It was a soldier’s truce, without any higher sanction by officers and generals. The next morning they walked up and down, shook hands, saluted and returned to their lines. Horror took a holiday.
I know of one analogous incident in the last war. A Swedish ship carrying German and Japanese diplomats and their families, rendezvoused in mid-Pacific with a brightly lit Japanese hospital ship carrying American, Canadian and British diplomats and their families, for a high wire breeches buoy transfer at sea. A Japanese sailor, obviously a Christian, perhaps educated by missionaries, began singing “In Christ There Is No East or West. In Him no South or North, just one great fellowship of love, throughout the whole wide world.” Before long dozens on both ships were singing that lovely hymn. And for one brief moment on that little point in mid-ocean, there was peace. What will it take to prolong that, for the whole wide world? I wish I knew.
Phillip Brooks, the long time rector of Trinity Church, Copley Square in Boston, and later Bishop of Massachusetts, I think identified it in his hymn O Little Town of Bethlehem in the Christmas miracle that is the birth of Christ, that holy happening in Bethlehem the night it came upon the midnight clear, that in the everlasting light of Christmas “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
May all our hopes and fears, in this terrible pandemic year, find rest and peace in the manger at Bethlehem, and forever after.
And a happy and blessed Christmas to all.