The Thin Place

Holy Family SilhouetteIn one of his most recent editorials, Christian Century editor John Buchanan recalled—in remembrance of its 100th anniversary—the remarkable story of the Christmas truce of 1914.

During World War I, as the toll of human life and suffering escalated in 1914, British troops faced German troops on the border between France and Belgium as the Christmas season approached. Between their respective trenches, there existed roughly 50 to 100 yards of “no man’s land,” and each side was under orders to shoot anything that could be seen moving on the other side.

Both sides began receiving Christmas packages from home, no doubt reminding all of the soldiers of what they were missing back home. When Christmas Eve arrived, there seemed to be a cessation of fire, although no one had issued any orders on either side to do so. British troops began to see little Christmas trees with lighted candles in the German trenches. At one point, a German soldier cried out, “A gift is coming now.” British troops interpreted that to mean a grenade, and ducked for cover, only to find that what came their way was a boot filled with German sausages. British troops responded by tossing a plum pudding toward the German trenches. As the evening wore on, German troops began singing, “Stille Nacht,” while British troops joined in on the English version.

Christmas Day found the opposing sides coming out of their trenches, greeting one another with awkward handshakes and small gifts. Some of the soldiers played soccer together. All of this took place in the absence of any official orders from either side.

Of course, the fighting—and the resultant casualties—resumed a few days later, but for a brief time there was, in Buchanan’s view, a Christmas truce.

I would call it something more than a truce. For the story reminds me of a notion from Celtic spirituality called a “thin place,” a situation or experience in which the distance between heaven and earth seems nearly to vanish, and suddenly we are able to catch an all-too brief glimpse of the divine. In those thin places, as one observer put it, “We become our more essential selves, entwined in cords of Christ’s transforming love.”

Just as the “no man’s land” seemed to vanish the night of the Christmas truce, so, in those “thin place” moments, the gap between humanity and divinity seems to disappear.

What more could we ask for, this Christmas season, than to encounter an occasion where the old barriers collapse? What more is in keeping with the true meaning of Christmas than to discover—even for a brief moment—that “thin place,” where the great divide between the human and the divine seems to have been overcome?