Peace on Earth

I had meant to discuss this a week ago, but time got away from me (as it is wont to do around this time of year), and now it’s Christmas Eve. Well, that’s appropriate. Last week I watched Joyeux Noël for the 3rd time with my wife and some friends. It’s kind of my new traditional Christmas movie, which I’d like very much to keep up. Here’s why:

Every year, a few more canisters of film get dropped on the mountain of Christmas movie kitsch. There’s a dorky comedy based on the Santa Claus mythology, a broad satire of Christmas stress and consumerism with a saccharine center, or a pseudo-heartwarming family flick that’s long on schmaltz on short on substance. Then, tradition and the pressing need to fill airtime blankets the airwaves with the ghosts of Christmas specials past. Some are pretty good. Most are, shall we say, “lesser” efforts.

It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, The Christmas Story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (cartoon version!), A Charlie Brown Christmas . . . Everyone has a favorite few, but Joyeux Noël is my definitive Christmas movie because it cuts right through the noise and the second-rate sentimentality with a radical and deeply moving demonstration of the sheer power of the Christmas message.

The movie tells the true story (how many Christmas movies can claim even that?) of a little known historical event: the Christmas truce of 1914. It was Christmas Eve in the trenches of France, just a few months into a war that had rapidly swept the whole of Europe into bloody, devastating conflict. On that uncharacteristically silent night, mortal enemies huddled in the freezing mud just a few hundred yards apart. The bodies of their slain companions littered the lonely stretch of no-man’s land between the lines. Scraping the bottom of the morale-boost barrel, German high command had sent miniature Christmas trees to adorn the front lines every few meters. On the allied side, the men derived what cheer they could out of gifts from home: letters, wine, maybe some Christmas chocolate or a new scarf. Both sides worried that their enemies might spring a surprise attack, even on Christmas.

Going through the festive motions, some sang Christmas carols and the mournful notes floated back and forth through the crisp air. German, British or French, all knew variations of the same songs, songs like “Silent Night” and “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful,” and they began to sing back and forth to each other. Before long, a few were hesitantly venturing out of their trenches, petty officers were negotiating temporary cease-fires, and a full-scale fraternization had begun. The men happily passed around their Christmas rations, warmed more by the spirit of giving than by the extra bottles of alcohol. In some places, chaplains held mass in Latin, the universal language of the church, and these mortal enemies worshiped together as brothers in Christ. Universally, wherever these spontaneous truces broke out, arrangements were made for the respectful internment of the dead.

Watching the angels’ 2,000-year old message of peace on earth and good will towards men transform a corpse-strewn battlefield into a communion of saint is so much more meaningful to me than a maudlin variation on the “true” reason for the season illustrated via a contrived Christmas “miracle.” The beauty of that silent, simple Christmas service never fails to bring tears to my eyes. But it doesn’t simply end with hardened soldiers singing Christmas carols to each other by the warm glow of the fire. Before long, superior officers on both sides have become aware of a very serious outbreak of peace up and down the front lines. This is unacceptable. After all, there’s a war on. Regiments are split apart, those in charge are disciplined and sent to commands in more dangerous areas, and order is restored. The war, we know, will continue for four horrific years.

In the movie, an English bishop relieves the chaplain who conducted the multi-national service of his duties and proceeds to preach a more suitable war-like sermon to fresh troops. Everything is done to sweep the incident under the rug . . . but those involved will never forget. I am struck each time by the blindness of this man of God. He preaches violence from a position of safety, but will never be called upon to actually kill another human being. Perhaps that has something to do with his failure to see what even the lowliest private on the front lines knows all too well: that the lives of all God’s creatures are precious. It is the sort of mistake that is all too easy for any of us to make.

The beauty of this film lies not only in the account of a Christmas-inspired peace amidst the hell of war, but in its strong reminder that the peace and hope Christ brought to the world so long ago can be a fragile, tenuous thing in the midst of our fallen world. It has power, certainly; the kind of incredible power that can silence weapons and inspire forgiveness and harmony between men ordered to kill one another. However, its ability to make a lasting difference the whole year-round is predicated on the courage and dedication of those who believe in the power and importance of the gospel message: a message of harmony and of love and of life. Joyeux Noël reminds me not only of the birth of Christ commemorated by our year-end celebration, but of everything that birth stands for.

Merry Christmas.

~ by Jared on December 24, 2007.

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