The Valley Rescue Mission on 2nd Avenue in Columbus is an outpost of hope for men who have fallen on hard times. If a man checks into the program, it’s because he has come to face to face with his own demons and has admitted to himself that he needs help. That’s not an easy place to be. Certainly not at Christmas.
For the last 15 years or more, my buddy, Shawn, and I have been going down to do a chapel service once a month with these men. Shawn wears out the piano. I strum the six-string. And these guys sing at the top of their lungs. I’ve never been anywhere else where a group of men use the same kind of lung power normally reserved for Friday night high school football. It’s a crazy good atmosphere.
We were there last night. And, because it’s Christmas, we worked in a few seasonal tunes. You’d have to hear Shawn to really appreciate what he does with most all 88 keys and hammers. He played in bars when he was a teenager. Local bands wanted him on stage with them.
So, when we rolled out a honky-tonk version of Jingle Bells, the Valley Rescue guys really got into it. Our version of Joy to the World is not quite the same as normally played on any given Sunday in church. Rough and unshaven faces were putting their hearts into it.
We were closing out with Silent Night. After a line or two, Shawn caught my eye and rolled his index finger at me like he was winding up a kite string. Show biz for “keep it going.” He stepped away from the piano. The men kept singing with only the acoustic in the background. The soft and familiar melody reverberated in that room in baritone and bass tones.
When the last chord fell away, I stood to set my guitar off to the side. A voice from the back kept singing. “Silent night. Holy night.” Another voice joined in. I gave Shawn a look like what’s going on. Another handful of voices filled the void. Soon, the entire room was singing a’ Capella one of the most memorable songs of the season. I honestly felt chills tingling up my spine. All the guys erupted into applause when it was over.
This is what Christmas does to us. It makes us better men. It reminds us of better things. It draws out of us the best that was ever created in us.
In an impromptu moment, Shawn started talking about the Christmas Truce of 1914. You probably know the story. It was the week of Christmas during WWI, somewhere along the western front. The British allies were hunkered down in their muddy trenches while the German forces kept low in their own misery. Maybe less than a hundred yards separated the soldiers. The ground between them was frozen and littered with the bodies of war.
Although the story has been overly romanticized and has become almost legendary for it’s remarkable offering of Christmas cheer, no one really knows exactly what happened and how this truce came to be. But some of the diaries tell things that are irrefutable.
Pvt. Albert Moren, of the Second Queens Regiment wrote on Christmas Eve that it was “a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere” you could see.
Someone said it was the Germans who offered the first sign that something unique was about to happen. The troops were close enough to hear each other from their trenches, and from the German side, someone shouted, “Merry Christmas, Englishmen.”
“First, the Germans would sing one of their carols,” wrote Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade. “Then we would sing one of ours.”
When the allies sang “O Come All Ye Faithful,” the Germans recognized the tune and started singing the Latin words they all had learned as children. Adeste Fideles. Nations of men all along the front line singing as one voice the story of Christmas that overshadowed the brutal reasons for being there in the first place.
It seems that the next morning, Christmas Day, the men emerged from their muddy trenches to greet one another in no-mans-land. Bloody and tired and missing home, they exchanged small gifts. Cigarettes. Buttons off their uniforms. Hats. Pipe tobacco. Those who have looked into it estimate that somewhere close to 100,000 men unexplainably and without official authority stopped the war for a day.
That is what Christmas does. It brings hope among enemies. It offers kindness in place of hate. It breaks down the differences that divide us. It fills the night with the sound of a familiar tune, whatever language is used.
The reports do not say specifically that the soldiers sang Silent Night, but the diaries do talk about the silence along the front lines. In the middle of their own small stillness, these men could hear the gunfire up and down the line either side of them. The ceasefire gave them opportunity to bury the dead. The quiet gave them time to write letters home. In the middle of a war, Christmas came.
The singing at Valley Rescue Mission reminded me of that.
In the middle of life, a man finds himself broken and without any reason to celebrate what is supposed to be the most joyous time of year. He has no home, so he sleeps on a cot. He has no kitchen, so eats food prepared by others. He has few things that he can call his own, so he wears a pair of pants and a sweater that was given to him from a shelf in the closet. His choices and habits have torn his life apart.
And in the middle of a small little chapel on 2nd Avenue, he and his brothers sing the songs of the season.
Christmas will be hard for some. An untimely death has stolen a loved one, and this will be the first Christmas without them. The people of Kentucky and Tennessee and Missouri are living in the middle of devastation. A nine-year-old holding her baby doll is gone. Hundreds of lives torn apart by tornadoes that came in a night that was anything but silent. A typhoon is ripping at the town of Cebu in the Philippines right this minute. I know this because our church is supporting a mission there and we got an email to pray for them.
Yet, Christmas still comes.
The real beauty of Christmas is not in the day on the calendar, but in the spirit of hope it brings. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that amid the rubble and hurt on the streets of some small town in Kentucky, candles will be lit and voices from out across the darkness will begin to sing. My friends on a small Pacific island will join them. The men at the mission on 2nd Avenue will join them. Soldiers away from home will hear the familiar tune. And I will be there with them. So will you.
Because that’s what Christmas does. It brings us hope.
Merry Christmas to all of you.