“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.”
It all started with a song. The single most powerful act of war in the history modern warfare started with a song that broke out from the trenches of the Western front. It was Christmas Eve, 1914.
The 20th century was supposed to be the century of possibility. With advances in modern science, industry and medicine, we were entering a new era of human flourishing. Diseases would be cured, life would be extended, and nations would open up in peaceful dialogue. And perhaps most importantly, there was a widespread declaration of independence in the Western world from the shackles of religion. Finally, humankind had the tools it needed to live in harmony together.
But by December 1914, harmony seemed anything but possible. It was the dawn of the First World war. European nations were trying to draw new, dark red lines on the world’s map, expanding and defending their borders. A generation of youth were enlisted to fight “for God and country.” Naive boys kissed their mother goodbye one last time to go off on an adventure that everyone believed would be over by Christmas. But by Christmas Eve, 1914, barely four months into the war, over one million of those young men had been killed.
The First World War was unlike any the world had seen. With the advances in science and industry came a host of new tactics and technologies designed to make destruction more efficient. The capacity to preserve life was met with a disproportionate capacity to destroy life. The unprecedented volume and pace of modern munitions could easily turn seconds of battlefield exposure into hundreds, even thousands, of casualties on both sides. Approaching the battlefield proved to be as dangerous as moving behind enemy lines. There was virtually no way in and no way out.
Prior to this era, shelter was simply a matter of distance. Battlefields generally formed along the borders of two opposing sides. These strips of land were recognized by both sides as “enemy lines,” the place you go to fight, certainly not to go to bed. Rest and refuge were found as far away as possible. But the horizontal war rhythms of fight and flight, advance and evacuate, would simply no longer work in the 20th century. Waves of soldiers were overwhelmed by the constant flood of firepower. The only way to get close enough to kill without inevitably being killed was to stay close—and to lay low. So early on in the war, field commanders learned that digging down was the only way to take survive the advent of modern machine guns. The shovel became the greatest weapon for national defense. And so began the era of trench warfare.
Trench warfare made for an unusual battlefield situation. Battlefields began to take on a new role, even a new look. War had theretofore been fought in anonymous clashes on the occasion of battles, but now they would be fought with familiar voices. Battlefields had become would be populated, even between the battles. Enemy lines would begin being accentuated by rows of trenches that ran along parallel tracks like neatly-spaced neighborhood sidewalks. Trenches needed to be close enough to the range of a bullet but far enough from the reach of a grenade. On the front lines that was just over a stone’s throw away. Trench warfare thus brought enemies into proximity. Battlefields became neighborhoods. Enemies lived across the street. In the space between was “no man’s land.” But that little strip of land represented infinite distances. No one was safe with the neighbors around. THe aboveground world was unfit for human life. So rest would only be found, life would only be found, around six feet under.
By the end of the war over 12,000 miles of trenches scarred the European landscape with the hollowing memory of incalculable loss. Any talk of gain from the war seemed hardly appropriate as the death toll crept past 17 million. The battlefield neighborhoods became ghost towns. The rows that were once the only silver linings life on the edges of a black nightmare of power were filled in with shared dirt from the space between. It was the sign for the surviving soldiers to return to their aboveground homes, that the world was again fit for life. Or was it the sign that the world itself is homeless, a place unfit for human life, a place we spend our entire lives doing little more than shifting around the dirt of no man’s lands, trying to blend the lines and cover the scars until the day those sidewalks are lined with headstones?
The lines are just too blurred now to tell.
No matter how much we try to forget, we cannot. Too much was exposed, and it has revealed more about human nature than any of us care to know. It revealed not only what we are capable of doing to our enemies, but what we are capable of doing to our neighbors, to people with familiar voices, to people who live just across the street. It revealed, in the end, that there is no human power greater than our power to destroy.
War reveals the greatest strength humans possess. And thus the Western Front has etched deep beneath the surface of its now lush green meadows a self-portrait of the human heart filled with a dark red dye that has stained the memory of Western Civilization as we know it. Indeed, the West is itself merely a front. The whole world lay buried in the trenches East of Eden: No Man’s Land.
So we try to forget, because how can we remember without losing hope?
But we are hopeless. We need a Savior.
But there is a memory of something else. It is a memory that arises from the trenches in the middle of the war. It is the memory of a power so immense that it can only be described as a miracle, because it put a halt to the highest form of all human power. It was found in a song on Christmas Eve, 1914. It was the song that stopped the war.
To hear about that song, listen to the Christmas Sermon from this year’s Christmas Eve service here.