One of the horrific wars of the 20th century was fought in Europe it is called the First World War or some called it the “war to end all wars.” It is estimated that between 15 million and 19 million died in the conflict and 23 million were wounded. The war to end all wars ended with a treaty intended to bring peace. However, it led to the rise of fascism and the Nazi Party and the outbreak of the Second World War where an estimated 70 to 85 million people died. This was about three percent of the world’s population. These two wars mean that some call the 20th century, the most violent in humanity’s history.
Yet despite the horror of these two wars, other wars, and those that continue to take place there are incredible stories of light, courage, and hope. The ravages of the two wars gave rise to a list of Christian men and women who, today, provide examples of how to live in and with suffering. Their lives pointed to something far greater and beyond the horrors of war and the inhumanity of man. I have several favorites, from this time, including St. Maximillian Kolbe, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who died at the hands of the Nazi’s in concentration/death camps. Also, Corrie Ten Bloom, who spent time in a concentration camp and survived influenced, has influenced other’s walk with the Lord, particularly regarding reconciliation.
Europe was forever changed as a result of these two wars and the evil of genocide not only in Germany but in the Soviet Union where over 20 million died at the hand of communism. Many had their faith challenged, and they rejected the Church and her message. A large portion of Western Europe that has surrendered to the values of secular humanism still experience this rejection. Now, countries that were once the center of Christian life and thought have an attendance of less than 5% of the population. This suggests that the Church failed to answer the deep discouragement and hopelessness of war. Despite this, some of the greatest theological works originated from that time. Some of these works are from great authors like C.S. Lewis, Karl Barth, and others.
One story from the first World War has always stood out in my mind. There are many but this one is so unique. World War I was fought in trenches. These trenches were cold and wet. Two thousand Americans and seventy-five thousand British soldiers died of trench foot; a disease caused by feet and socks that didn’t dry. Thousands more had feet and legs amputated from the same disease. World War I also introduced gas warfare. Men died horrible deaths. One can barely read the effects that gas warfare had on the dying person because it is so graphic. It is no wonder, that despite many nations storing toxic gases, every civilized society has condemned the use of chemical gases in warfare.
The young men in the trenches suffered. During suffering, Pope Benedict, on December 7,1914 called for a truce but the warring governments refused to heed his plea. But on Christmas Eve of 1914, the soldiers themselves put down their weapons. Across the no-man’s land (the area between the opposing trenches) the British soldiers heard the German soldiers singing Christmas Carols. Some suggest that the first carol was Silent Night sung in German to which the British sang the same back in English. On Christmas Day, the Germans, unarmed crossed into the no man’s land with gifts for the British soldiers.The British did not trust them at first but eventually they too entered the land and gave gifts to the Germans. For a moment, if only so briefly there was “peace on earth.” The war resumed on December 26th. And, it took four more years before a very fragile and vindictive treaty was signed. A treaty that historians tell us was doomed to fail.
Christ was among the suffering; he was in the trenches singing hymns with them. Christ was with them amid the darkness. Christ enters the darkness of humanity by becoming complete and perfectly human to redeem humanity and restore it to its proper dignity and worth. Christ becomes human and takes it upon Himself to be the enemy of death defeating our enemy and making it the very means by which we are born again into eternal life. We can now participate in His death and so know the power of His resurrection, seating us with Him in the place we belong both now and then.
It is incredible that God became a baby. God became a helpless dependent baby, born of a human mother making every womb a holy sanctuary of life. The creator God became dependent on His creation for food, shelter, warmth, and even human affection. God reveals Himself not as wrathful or vengeful but in love with humanity (John 3.16) by coming to us in humanity. It is the gift Him that is the mystery that silenced a war. It is also the mystery that silences the stirring and rumblings of a restless soul. As St. Augustine wrote, “you have made us for yourself and our souls are restless until they find their rest in you.”
The Incarnation we see at Christmas time is God’s solution to the problem of evil, whether it be from war, genocide, or the horror of the modern holocaust of abortion. The Incarnation is God’s solution to the continual fight against sin, the world and the devil. The Incarnation is that which turns sinners into saints – even martyrs. The Incarnation is that which gives us hope. The Incarnation calls us out of fear and compels us to seek that which is greater than the horrors in the trenches.
There is so much suffering in the world even today. But our faith tells us that we will always find Him among the suffering and the poor, in the prisoner, the stranger, the hungry, the thirsty, and the homeless. We will always find Him fully human and divine in a small piece of bread and a sip of wine. Forever Christ is with us – Emmanuel.
I pray each of you, no matter what your circumstances, will find a moment to ponder, like Mary, the mystery of infant Jesus. I pray you have a most blessed Advent and Christmas.
Under His mercy