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Jesus Came to Bring Peace

If you were to pick the worst time and place to be in all of human history, in a trench in Southern France in 1914 might make the list. The reasons why are incredibly complicated, but perhaps the simplest way to explain it is to say that machine guns had been invented but tanks had not. The result? Stalemate. Thousands of Frenchmen would die to take a small hill, only to have thousands of Germans die to recapture in the next day. Some hills swapped hands so many times that the millions of artillery shells fired at them turned them into valleys.
Soldiers dug trenches in order to protect themselves from enemy gunfire, but the trenches sometimes took more lives than they saved. Men lived in trenches for months on end surrounded by their own excrement, the bodies and severed limbs of their dead comrades, rats, lice, the wounded and sick and occasionally chlorine gas. To make matters worse, rain would fill up the trenches with chlorine-saturated water which would burn the skin, sting the eyes and make sleep almost impossible.
Add to these deadly annoyances the fact that at any moment a shell might explode in their laps or a general in Chantilly or Berlin would order them to leave the relative “safety” of the trench and charge across ‘no man’s land’ a hellish field of corpses, barbed wire, giant craters from artillery shells and, of course, near certain death from enemy gunfire. In other words the Western front in World War I was horrendous in a way that the average modern mind cannot reasonably be expected to grasp. Which makes the days surrounding Christmas of 1914 that much more surprising.
About a week before Christmas, in pockets all along the western front, fighting simply stopped. Beleaguered men hesitantly began to emerge from their trenches, ready one can only assume, to jump back in if the gunfire resumed. But for the most part it did not. Germans and Frenchmen met in no man’s land, traded mementos, talked about life back home (as best they could with the language barriers) buried their dead and even played a game of soccer. And of course, they celebrated Christmas with carols, decorated trees and gifts.
I love this story because, for me, it captures both the wonder and the limitations of Christmas and of Christ’s incarnation. On the one hand, despite centuries of animosities, privation, starvation and death, war and the atrocities of war these men were able to talk, laugh, sing and celebrate the birth of Christ together. On the other hand fighting resumed a couple of days later, Germany still refused to enter peace talks and would soon draw the Ottoman Empire into the conflict.
If Christ truly came to usher in the Kingdom of God as he claimed what are we to make of the current world we inhabit. Perhaps unsurprisingly these very themes come to us time and again in the Christmas story itself. It has become so familiar that we sometimes forget that how messy Christ’s birth really was. He was born to an unwed mother who faced ostracism and even death for getting pregnant out of wedlock. He was born I the lowliest of circumstances in a time when death in childbirth and infant mortality were a common occurrence, even to those not giving birth in a stable. Mere weeks after Jesus’ family fled to a foreign country all the children 2 and under in his village were slaughtered in an attempt to kill him.
When the angels announced Jesus birth to the shepherds they announced, “peace on earth to those on whom his favor rests.” To Mary and Joseph it must have seemed that the world offered them little in the way of peace and goodwill. But this has always been the tension between the promises of God and the lives we live. His promises are always here and yet on the horizon.
This reality is a comfort to me when I reflect on the brokenness of my family, my neighbors and people across the globe. Christ’s presence doesn’t fix everything, but it does touch everything. It doesn’t end the war, but it does allow for a little bit of peace, a game of soccer and Christmas carols sometime in late December.
 -Andrew R 

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