Christmas is our redemption: 2017 version
I first recounted the following two stories back in 2007, offering them as examples of “human redemption”. Both, I felt, were imbued with the “spirit of Christmas”.
Ten years on, I am living in a world I would have never imagined then. You know why. The sordid details are all googleable – and if, when you read this, you don’t know what I mean by “googleable” then, my God, what’s happened? But the details aren’t important right now.
In another ten years, the details will be different but the outcome is the same: living in a world that today we cannot imagine.
What do these stories mean through a 2017 lens? More importantly, what does anything like “redemption” look like? Doesn’t “spirit of Christmas” become hopelessly distorted and inherently exclusionary? Or have I become a Grinch? Has my heart grown two sizes too small?
I must re-examine these two stories. See what’s changed. One is of a peaceful respite in the midst of brutal trench warfare; the other of a young boy of nine, looking up at the moon in 1968.
Blood and cigarettes: a moment of sanity on Christmas Eve
In 1914, in the trenches of World War 1 during the dark night of winter, the spirit of Christmas rose from the mud-soaked earth. Battered by a war of mechanized killing the likes of which the world had never seen, English and German soldiers came out into “no man’s land” to celebrate Christmas.
There, in the miserable, frozen trenches of Europe, the soldiers climbed out, erstwhile enemies, often separated by only a few dozen yards. They shared Christmas carols, shook hands, and exchanged cigarettes. For a brief time the reason for the killing and slaughter vanished.
Christmas is our redemption.
My take in 2017
The story of the 1914 Christmas truce has morphed into mythology. It did happen in places, but certainly not along the entire western front. Many still died in battle that day.
Perhaps there is nothing wrong with a myth, as long as it is the right one. Our entire lives are built up around myths. As grand stories that define values, purpose, and meaning, myths are the cornerstone of civilization. We are a storytelling species.
Whatever motivated young men to “take sides,” crouch in muddy trenches, and shoot at each other was based on a myth. A narrative that demanded vengeance and hatred, fueled with the blood of a generation.
In the trenches of Europe, another myth took hold, at least for a few, on Christmas in 1914. Hours before, soldiers fired their weapons across a desolate no-man’s-land of certain death. Suddenly, no man’s land became common ground. Shared ground. Some played soccer.
For that brief moment, the overriding narrative foreshadowed the words of JFK:
Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.
If those men could climb out of their trenches of violence and hate and meet on common ground, why can’t we?
Of course, upon hearing of the sporadic peacemaking on the front, the high command disapproved. They were concerned the men would lose their fighting spirit.
On Christmas Eve of that year, I remember looking up in the cold Colorado night on our way to Christmas Eve services and marveling to myself how at that very moment three men Apollo 8 were circling the full moon high above.
I looked closer to see if I could spot the spacemen in their capsule, which, by the ripe old age of 10, I realized wasn’t likely.
The images from the moon looking back on Earth were profound. All we really knew, fought and died for, possessed, coveted, loved, hated – all of it – was just a lonely, beautiful, blue globe hanging in the endless blackness of space.
So there’s your proof. We’re all in this together, despite appearances here on the ground. We’ll just have to keep working at it.
Christmas is our redemption.
My take in 2017
Human redemption? The phrase lends itself to dogma.
For each step forward, it seems we too often circle back, unsure of a path forward. It is human nature. As are the brief but enduring moments that we dig out of our own personal trenches of suspicion and misunderstanding, meeting others on common ground. It does happen.
Our narratives are fluid. The redemption of our species is by no means assured. It may even feel a tad doubtful, here and now in 2017. In the end, Hobbes may be right
But I remain a hopeful pessimist.
It is no coincidence that Christmas, signifying the myth of a Christian Savior, born of a virgin and all the rest, comes with the winter solstice. In the fog of our long-forgotten past, surely we clung together in the long, dark winter night, looking for a savior. A miracle.
I subscribe to the idea that the mere fact that I am here, now, writing these words is a miracle. A reason to press on.
Albert Einstein said: “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.”
Christmas is the idea that everything is a miracle.