I noticed tonight, as we were singing carols in our Christmas Eve service, that our hymnal has five verses to “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” my favorite carol. I find deep comfort in what I have known as the third verse, which I know has been quoted more than once here:
and you beneath life’s crushing load
whose forms are bending low
who toil along life’s climbing way
with painful steps and slow
look now for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing
o rest beside the weary road
and hear the angels sing
But the intended third verse (making my favorite the fourth) has an amazing message all its own:
yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world hath suffered long;
beneath the angel-strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
and man, at war with man, hears not
the love song which they bring:
o hush the noise, ye men of strife,
and hear the angels sing.
My first thought was the Senate might have done well to have that verse sung at the beginning of today’s session – or every day’s session. Then I thought of another song, written about twenty-five years ago by a man named John McCuthcheon, about the last time there was a Christmas truce on a battlefield, which was in 1914, during World War I. Since then, it seems, we’ve learned we don’t need to stop fighting for anything.
McCuthcheon tells the story as one of the characters, an English soldier who is lying in the trenches on Christmas Eve and hears a German voice singing Christmas carols. The English respond with carols of their own and, before long, both sides are standing in no-man’s land under the moonlight, sharing food and even playing soccer, and finding out they are all human. There is painful irony in the fact that the dawn of Christmas Day meant they went back to fighting, yet they were changed.
Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each prepared to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night
“Whose family have I fixed within my sights?”
‘Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost, so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung
For the walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore
There are many ways in which it feels like Christmas in the trenches here in America, whether we’re talking about Iraq and Afghanistan, health care reform, or which state is red or blue. We are descending into an endless conflict where we choose not to see the faces on the other side, but allow the ideas we are fighting for carry the supreme value. We want to win more than we want to grow and thrive. “Whose family have I fixed within my sights?” might be a good question to carry into the new year. When we pass the Peace each Sunday in our service, we precede it by saying a quote from Mother Theresa together:
Be the living expression of God’s kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.
If we, who claim on this night to welcome the Prince of Peace into the world once again, are not those who choose to wage peace in our world, and our nation, bent on mutual destruction, where will we find hope?
The Peace of Christ be with you. Merry Christmas.