Wit & Wisdom (by Adam Harbinson)

Adam Harbinson
Adam Harbinson

There’s a story told by Leo Tolstoy about a couple of children playing together in the street. Children being children an argument started about something trivial and so one splashed the other with a handful of muddy water and soon it was fists and stones that were being thrown around.

The parents of one of the children were watching the altercation and came out of their home to intervene and then the father of the other child did likewise, and to cut a long story short a full-scale brawl ensued. But during a lull in the battle one of the parents noticed that the children were happily playing together again as if nothing had happened.

Truly the children were wiser than their elders – that was the thrust of the story.

You might have heard of the Messines Christmas Truce. If so, I’d like to make a correction: that is, if you heard the same version that I grew up with.

Messines is a city located in the Belgian province of West Flanders. In 1914 it was the scene of the famous Battle of Messines, or Mesen to give it its Belgian name.

The story goes that on Christmas Eve night, when the guns had fallen silent, the sound of a German voice singing Silent Night wafted from the bloody trenches on the evening air, and the British, in their trenches heard it and joined in. Then heads popped up, gingerly at first, and before long the formerly opposing forces were sharing drinks, swapping family photographs and stories from home, and then they had a game of football before returning to their respective trenches.

Now the version of the story I was familiar with was that that while senior officers from both sides were not pleased, nonetheless the German and British soldiers resumed the battle as soon as Christmas was over.

However, I was recently introduced to a man who has been appointed Messines Ambassador to Ireland, and he tells a different story.

It is true that senior officers from both sides were unhappy with the Christmas truce, but the truth appears to be that when Christmas was over, only one shot was fired, and it was an accidental discharge.

To reinstate the Battle of Messines both British and German fighting men had to be withdrawn and replaced with others who had not had the opportunity to see the humanity in the eyes of their foe.

The story of the Christmas truce always reminds me of Tolstoy’s tale. The generals saw only a strategic battle to be won, whatever the cost in terms of human life; those at the coalface saw men – fathers and husbands, sons, brothers ... and friends. They, like Tolstoy’s youngsters, were wiser than their elders.

Maybe that’s what it means to be a follower of Jesus. You just see people – people he loved, people he died for.

Wouldn’t that have a totally transformative impact on our family life, our workplaces, on our communities and on our world?