Presented December 24th, 2022 Rev. Fiona Heath
The carol Silent Night was first heard in a little stone church in Austria over two hundred years ago, bringing comfort to troubled people in a difficult time. Just over one hundred years ago, Silent Night once again brought comfort to people in dire circumstances.
Many of you will know the story of the first Christmas in World War One. This was a terrible war, fought in trenches, with rifles, bombs, and bayonets, the western front inching backwards and forwards. The Allies and German lines were so close together they could hear each other.
Winter was cold and miserable and the day before Christmas had been another day of freezing and shooting.
Early Christmas morning, before dawn broke, German soldiers quietly put Christmas trees with candles on top of their trenches, visible to the English and French. In one cold trench, under the stars, the German soldiers began to sing *“Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.”
Now the Pope had asked for a Christmas ceasefire, “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” The plea was officially ignored.
So the French and English soldiers, hearing silent night, holy night, were surprised. They chose to sing back.
The two sides began to sing together and eventually agreed to meet in no man’s land – the land between their trenches.
This spontaneous truce emerged all over the western front. A few hours of peace where the sides shared family photos, shared food and drink, played soccer and held a service for the dead. At the service, silent night was sung in French, and in German, together. *“Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.”
I can only imagine what these words meant to the soldiers on that December night in world war one. Death and destruction everywhere. Meeting the “enemy” and knowing they were just as hungry, homesick and as scared as you.
Having just one night of calm and bright. One night of silence from the terror of gunfire.
The peace was only temporary. Not because the soldiers were eager to fight but because those in High Command – on both sides – were horrified by the truce. What if the soldiers just left their weapons and kept the peace?
Commanding officers were ordered to end the ceasefire and return to war. The calm quiet silent holy night was over.
Several soldiers – in correspondence with their families – admitted to shooting high for a time after – to avoid shooting the men with whom they had just shared a single, peace-filled day.
The High Command – on both sides – refused to allow a Christmas Truce to happen again the rest of the war.
As Unitarian Universalists while we may not believe the theology of Silent Night – the virgin and child being a particular bone of contention – the story, the history of the carol speaks to the heart of our faith.
The idea that all along the centuries people in troubled times take a moment to sing of calm, of quiet, of hope for peace.
We live in more comfortable but still troubled times. The future is more uncertain than ever. We need hope.
We need the vision of a time when we might experience the friendship possible between all people, no matter their differences. That idea that peace on earth is possible, if we want it enough. This is our sixth principle – the desire for world community – in action on one winter night.
It isn’t the everyday people who choose war, who choose inequality, who choose separation. It is those with power. Those with wealth.
The rest of us, we want those silent holy nights. We want the calm and the bright.
We all have the power to call a ceasefire, we have the power to reach out and offer a helping hand, we have the voices to sing in harmony.
In this time when Europe is once more facing war, may we hold fast to the truth offered over the centuries in one small song, written for a village, heard by the world. That peace is possible.
*“Silent night, holy night. All is calm. All is bright.”
May you find the calm and bright this night.
On this holy night may you sleep in peace.
May all people everywhere sleep in peace, this night and every night.
So Say We All.