The chapel is quiet right now. The only noise comes from the Black Hawks and Chinooks preparing to take off to destinations around Iraq. It is Christmas Eve. The rain is pouring and the ground is rapidly covered in a type of mud that is anything but festive. It bogs the mood of the camp, but the war effort does not slow. I have been here for every holiday this year. It never slows, not even in Taji, a place far from the thunder of the front lines.
In just a few short hours, the Australian Padre, fellow US chaplains and I will lead a candlelight service celebrating once again the birth of the Prince of Peace. We will sing traditional carols as military personnel and contractors from around the world pause to pay homage. It is a wonderful reminder. Men and women have looked to this event with hope-filled wonder for many years.
I think a great deal about peace these days. Whether it is Iraq or Syria, it is difficult for those who care not to watch with broken hearts. I feel fortunate to be part of an ongoing operation trying to do something about the tragedy we all see on our screens, but it never seems to be enough and it never seems to move fast enough. The destruction is indiscriminate and especially brutal to those most vulnerable: the elderly, women, and children.
As I unpack the candles for the service, I meditate on the last year. I’m getting ready to leave. The battles still rage to my north and probably will for some time to come. There is a certain guilt I cannot help but feel as I prepare to leave. I get to go home. I get to hug my wife and children and sleep in relative safety under the beautiful Tucson night sky. If I want, I do not have to even consider the war-torn events I am poised to leave. It is a strange luxury lost on most of our country. I am ill at ease with that reality. And so I wonder and pray, what will PEACE look like for this part of the world?
One of the officers at lunch recounted the story of the Christmas Truce from WWI. I googled it when I returned back to my office. The story perfectly illustrates how, during the weeks leading to Christmas, tragedy becomes the paradox of God’s grace. The story has the feel of myth. As it goes, roughly 100,000 British and German soldiers were involved in an unofficial cessation of hostility along the Western Front. The Germans placed candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees. Both sides joined in singing Christmas Carols, shouting greetings across the way. They even made excursions across No Man’s Land to exchange gifts of food, tobacco, and alcohol.
How were they able to peer past their training and their reality to see the peace being celebrated in the birth of Christ? I think of the enemies we now face and I cannot imagine a similar scene. I cannot see the same opportunities of make-shift sacred space or a common understanding of humanity. During the Christmas Truce, there was a stalemate in the trenches. There was a space created in the impasse. The space was steeped in desperation and prayer. It became a sacred moment juxtaposed with the coming Christmas morning. There was time to actually consider the story of the one hunkered in the opposite the trench. The soldier was drilled to believe that the enemy soldier is the enemy of all life and all future. But in the space in between, they saw a common humanity. They saw the image of God within the other. In a season where we celebrate hope, joy and love, peace overcame them, even if for only a short while.
In some respects, it is probably not completely fair to compare this current conflict with that one so long ago. As I hear the approaching steps of a chaplain, one cannot help but wonder, however. Have the last 13 years of war has created a similar type of stalemate? This deployment has created more questions than answers. Will we be able to take the tragic spaces created by war and make them holy? How will peace be possible if we are unable or even unwilling to see our own stories, sons, and daughters in the faces of our enemy? I do not know. In our candlelit circle tonight, there will be no elements of the enemy. There will be no echoing songs coming from battle lines afar. No gifts. No sharing of photos of family. No laughter. After nine months however, I can attest that the same desperation and prayer will be here tonight.
The problem of peace is nothing new. I had hoped that this problem would be one I would not have to pass down to my children awaiting my return. I imagine that same hope was a driving reason for the anticipation surrounding Christ’s birth so long ago. And so tonight we will sing. And we will pray. And we will lift the light of Christ high into the air. And we will welcome the Prince of Peace, trusting like those soldiers did a hundred years ago that peace can be born in the most hopeless places.