On Christmas Eve in 1914, the soldiers of the Allied troops were dug in on one side of “No Man’s Land,” a neutral territory that divided the trenches of the Allies from the opposing trenches of the German army. The trenches of both armies spread along a border nearly thirty miles long, with the distance between them varying depending on the terrain. Harold Jenkins, a private in the British army, was assigned to the front just outside of Paris where the fighting had been particularly heavy. He had just received a Christmas package from home. The hand-knit woollen socks were a God-send. His feet had not been dry or warm since he had entered the flooded trench that his battalion had been charged with defending. He also relished the thought of enjoying a good smoke and some pieces of chocolate that had been included in the package. Most of all, he appreciated the lengthy letter with news from home. It brought tears to his eyes to think of how the family would all be celebrating Christmas, going to Church and sharing a delicious dinner this evening.
All of the soldiers were feeling a bit sad and sentimental. Over the past twenty-four hours, memories of Christmases past made the continuous sniping and the rapid machine gun fire, the soggy muck of the trench floor, and the hastily eaten rations and gulps of water seem all the more terrible. Some of the men were even crying because they were feeling so homesick. A few of the guys, more optimistic and hopeful than the others, were trying to make the best of a bad situation. In the spirit of the season, they had erected a sign on the parapets of their trench, facing towards the enemy trenches wishing the German soldiers a “Merry Christmas.”
To their surprise, within an hour or so, the Germans had erected a sign as well. Then, word began to spread through the ranks that the Germans had sent a message across to the Allies, asking if it would be agreeable to have a short ceasefire in order for their troops to get a small Christmas concert together. The Allied commander had agreed to this and before long, the sounds of familiar Christmas carols were drifting over from the other side of No Man’s land. Spirits began to lift, and since the fighting had stopped for the moment the Allied soldiers spent time exchanging some of the gifts they had received from family with one another and sharing news from home. When a chocolate cake arrived as a gift from the German troops, there was nothing to do but to put together a gift to send back. Soon soldiers were venturing out from the trenches on both sides and meeting one another, singing some songs together and exchanging small items from their meagre stores. Since the sun had come out for the first time in days, men from both sides even got up a few soccer scrimmages.
The Company Commander, acting on orders he had received “from above,” tried to stop the exchanges between the enemy troops, but he had no success. Finally, after several days, new troops were sent to replace the troops in the trenches and the fighting resumed. For those who experienced this Christmas truce, the suspension of hostilities during the Christmas season became a surreal memory. As impossible as it would seem, enemy soldiers had crossed the small piece of land that belonged to neither army to share conversation, gifts and camaraderie with one another. For a brief period of time, No Man’s Land had become Common Ground.
This story, based on a real event that occurred in the early days of World War One, serves as a reminder that, often, our enemies are chosen for us by circumstances and events that seem to be beyond our control. On the command of our superiors, we trudge our way through battles that often make little or no sense to us. The troops in the trenches often said, in reflecting on this Christmas truce, that it seemed hard to believe both at the time and later in the war. It’s tempting to make this story one of nostalgia and sentimentality, and to gloss over the very real tensions that must have been present in the situation.
This story reminds me of another story – the story of the “Last Supper” that appears in every one of the four Gospels in the New Testament. In a way, this story helps us to “disenchant” that most important of Christian narratives. In almost all of the art that depicts the inauguration of the Eucharist, and in most of the homilies and teachings I have heard or read about it, the supper that Jesus shared with his disciples seems to be cast in a hazy, warm glow. He lovingly shares food and wine, offers up the blessing of thanksgiving and gives praise to God. Often the disciples are shown to be resting upon one another, or leaning forward eagerly to engage each other in conversation. But, if we read back into the story the accusations of Jesus and his warnings that he knows about the coming betrayals of his faithless followers, we have to also reinvest the story with tension.
Jesus called Judas to be one of his followers and appointed him the keeper of the common purse. At the dinner, he lets everyone know of Judas’ treachery. Jesus called Peter and ultimately appointed him to tend to those who needed Jesus’ care and guidance. At the dinner, he lets everyone know that Peter hasn’t got what it takes to endure faithfully with him to the end. When Jesus states that he knows that first Judas and then Peter will betray him, he would certainly have lent the atmosphere in that room an air of tension, conflict, discomfort and embarrassment. And yet, we seem to always focus on the serenity and loving kindness of Jesus as he breaks the bread and shares it with everyone present, and when he blesses the cup and allows it to be passed to all of the disciples as a common ritual drink.
It would seem that the New Testament authors wanted us to know that, despite the fact that those present at the last supper of Jesus and his disciples were far from perfect, and might possibly have been considered enemies to Jesus, the sharing of the ritual Passover meal takes place as a way of suspending hostilities so that the group can be united in giving thanks and praise to God. If we remember this while we read the accounts of the soldiers on the front lines who likewise suspended hostilities in order to celebrate Christmas, perhaps we can grasp the meaning of true communion without having to resort to denial of the very real problems faced by people who were, in fact, enemies.
There is a very real difference in these two stories and it is one which ought to be reflected upon by the church. In the army, the officers who were appointed commanders of the troops were issuing orders to the troops to stop fraternizing with the enemy. They knew, no doubt, that it would be very difficult to resume fighting once they had gotten to know one another. If we consider that Jesus was, in truth, the “high commander” of the band of disciples, we must acknowledge that he did not act in this way. Instead, he acknowledged the betrayals, the mistrust, and the conflict that were present in their relationships. Then, he suspended any hostility and enacted a shared meal where not one of the disciples – particularly not those who had broken faith, as it were – was excluded.
What do we do when we gather to obey Jesus’ command to “Do this in memory of me?” Do we follow the example of Jesus? Do we act like the soldiers at the front lines in the war and suspend our hostilities? Do we put aside our grievances and issues with one another to celebrate our unity in God? Or do we act more like the Company Commanders and the Generals in the army? Do we seek to disrupt or disallow anything that might seem like “fraternizing with the enemy?” Which of these two situations, given the act of Jesus in instituting the sacrament of communion, should the Church represent?
It seems obvious that the Church should follow Jesus and should correct itself when it finds that its practices have become irreconcilable with who Jesus was and what he did. But the Church often seems more inclined to imitate the views of the Generals and Company Commanders in dictating that its members avoid fraternizing with the enemy. That logic is present in decisions to deny communion to certain members of the Church, even though we must remember that Jesus never seems to have followed this path in his teaching and companionship with his own disciples. In the media, the Church hierarchy often seems to demand that the faithful obey their directives and stop the practices of communion that are taking place in communities with serious issues, conflicts and animosity. By casting out the wrong-doers, do they believe that peace and harmony will be restored? Or are they afraid that if people are encouraged to come together despite their differences, the fighting will not resume once the communion is done?
Within the army, the views of the Generals do drift down and are taken up by ambitious soldiers. They try to act like Generals in the hope that they will be chosen to climb the ladder of military power. The same thing can happen in the Church. People who ambitiously seek the approval of official superiors can try to act like them, to show that they understand why the war must not be allowed to be suspended in order to enjoy a ceasefire and communion. Maybe the reality of the tension that was present in the story of the Last Supper should give us pause to think about what communion really is – it is the sacramental act of overcoming apparent division in order to gather in unity to express thanksgiving and praise to one God who is the God of all. It is a sacrifice. We sacrifice our entitlement to grudges, self-righteousness, divisions, superiority and the right to exclude others from our table in order to appreciate and give thanks for the essential unity that binds us all despite our differences, even despite the very real evil for which we bear responsibility within our own communities.
Human beings betray one another. We perform evil acts upon one another. Our church communities reflect this reality. Being perfect is not a requirement for participation in the Eucharist. If it was, no human being would ever feel worthy to participate. In fact, such heresies pepper church history and have often led to the faithful denying themselves communion because of their sense of unworthiness. But the truth is that communion in our parishes – especially in those parishes that are experiencing conflict and disharmony – should be cast more in the light of the Last Supper and the Christmas Truce of World War One, and less in the light of commands and directives from the “higher ups” in our institutions. If for no other reason, this should happen to remind us that nothing – nothing we can do – can overcome the love of God and its power to unite us.