On December 24 1914, 19 year old Charles Brewer found himself in the last place anyone would want to be: knee-deep in the mud on a battlefield in Northern France.  Five months into Great Britain’s entry into what is now known as World War I, the British Lieutenant sat in the seemingly endless rain, across a field from German soldiers.  The war, likewise, seemed endless.

Brewer then noticed the rising of a faint sound that he had never before heard on the battlefield—a Christmas carol. The German words to “Stille Nacht” were not familiar, but the tune—“Silent Night”—certainly was. When the German soldiers finished singing, their foes broke out in cheers. Used to returning fire, the British now replied in song with the English version of the carol.

When dawn broke on Christmas morning, something even more remarkable happened. In sporadic pockets along the 500-mile Western Front, unarmed German and Allied soldiers tentatively emerged from the trenches and cautiously crossed no-man’s-land—the killing fields between the trenches littered with frozen corpses, eviscerated trees and deep craters—to wish each other a Merry Christmas. Political leaders had ignored the call of Pope Benedict XV to cease fighting around Christmas, but soldiers in the trenches decided to stage their own unofficial, spontaneous armistices anyway.[i]

Somehow, this seemingly impossible phenomenon was taking place across battlefields, each in their own way.

“A huge range of differing oral accounts, diary entries and letters home from those who took part make it virtually impossible to speak of a “typical” Christmas truce as it took place across the Western front. To this day historians continue to disagree over the specifics: no one knows where it began or how it spread, or if, by some curious festive magic, it broke out simultaneously across the trenches.

Nevertheless, some two-thirds of troops — about 100,000 people — are believed to have participated in the legendary truce.”[ii]

Although many of the accounts are different, Silent Night often gets the credit for stopping the war – at least for a few hours.

The legends around the origin of the carol have a bit of drama of their own.  One story paints a picture of a night 200 hundred years ago as Rev. Joseph Mohr, priest of St. Nicholas’ Church in Oberndorf Austria faced a preacher’s worst nightmare:

it was Christmas Eve when he discovered that mice has chewed through the church organ’s bellows.  “Scrambling to find music for a Christmas Eve service… he dashed off a few lines about the night Jesus was born and asked composer Franz Xaver Gruber to set the lyrics to a simple tune, played on guitar.”[iii]

It’s a great story – even if it’s not entirely true.  As Emily McFarlan Miller of Religion News Service writes, “Most of the story about its origins is true. But the details don’t quite match the legend.” While the song may have first been performed 200 years ago tonight, Mohr had written the words as a poem some years earlier.  It’s true that the organ wasn’t working that night but the story about the mice “may be a bit over the top.”

The legends around Silent Night certainly make the song more interesting.  This song that brings many of us peace because of its simplicity and lullaby-like feel is made even more thought-provoking when surround by tales of ceasefires and hungry mice.

Songs have always played an important part in the stories surrounding Jesus’ births.  Luke’s gospel has songs sung by John the Baptist’s father Zechariah, Jesus’ mother Mary, the angels announcing to the shepherds, and the priest Simeon.

These songs that we sing and these stories that we tell each year are simple reminders of God at work in our lives.  Yet there may be times that we find ourselves trying to figure out what’s true and what details don’t quite match the legends. Some of these Christmas legends sound impossible.

Virgin birth, that’s impossible.  Angels singing to shepherds?  That’s impossible.  Astronomers following a star from who-knows-how far away and ending up exactly where they need to be? That’s impossible.

Why do all these impossible stories set the foundation for Christmas? What if, like the story of mice chewing through organ bellows “Most of the story about its origins is true. But the details don’t quite match the legend.”

When we wonder about the impossible, we recognize that the unlikely is achievable.

We thought that the Messiah would arrive as a warrior king, it was impossible to believe that the Christ would be a helpless infant born to poor, migrant parents.

We thought that the Anointed Savior would come to condemn the world, It was impossible to believe that they would come to save us – all of us, every human, regardless of race, creed, origin, or nationality.

We thought that Christ would come and destroy our enemies.  It was impossible to believe that, when given the opportunity for violent vengeance that Christ would choose self-sacrificial love.

When we wonder about the impossible, we recognize that the unlikely is achievable.

It was impossible for a song to stop a war.

“I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence,” one veteran from the Fifth Battalion the Black Watch, Alfred Anderson, later recalled to The Observer. “It was a short peace in a terrible war.”[iv]

“…for many at the time, the story of the Christmas truce was not an example of chivalry in the depths of war, but rather a tale of subversion: when the men on the ground decided they were not fighting the same war as their superiors.”[v]

That short armistice in a war that would continue unheeded through three more Christmases reflects the seemingly impossible ways that God calls us to turn the world around, to be co-creators in the kingdom that God intended for us from the moment of our creation; the reign of God that was meant to be ushered in on that Silent Night in a chaotic animal stall filled with unknown possibilities and potential.  A moment when God cries out for justice and equality, against war and division, against a powerful few in protected towers sending the oppressed to give their lives.

When we wonder about the impossible, we recognize that the unlikely is achievable.

Christmas reminds us each year that the impossible is possible.  That the potential of the Christ child lives in us, that the work of Christ is done through our hands, that the love of Christ burns in our hearts.

We’re heading towards that precious moment we share together once a year – the time of singing Silent Night by candlelight.

“For countless churchgoers… that moment of quiet reflection captures what Christmas is all about — a moment amid the noise of the holidays when all is calm and bright. It’s a moment to gather with family and friends to remember a holy infant so tender and mild.”[vi]

As we share that time together, we remember the legends of Silent Night, we reflect on the stories that we share, and we believe that the impossible is possible.

May the Silent Night we share tonight remain with you all year round.  Merry Christmas.  Amen.

[i] https://www.history.com/news/world-war-is-christmas-truce-100-years-ago

[ii] http://time.com/3643889/christmas-truce-1914/

[iii] https://religionnews.com/2018/12/14/why-silent-night-and-the-stories-around-it-endure-200-years-later/

[iv] http://time.com/3643889/christmas-truce-1914/

[v] Ibid.

[vi] https://religionnews.com/2018/12/14/why-silent-night-and-the-stories-around-it-endure-200-years-later/

Silent Night