Christmas carols illustrate unifying power of sacred music

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, December 21, 2017

Christmas carols invite us out of the trenches of our differences to rejoice in our shared humanity in the spirit of Silent Night. Graphic with Adobe Clip Art

The other day, Cochranite Werner Kesel and I were reflecting on an event that speaks so movingly of love, hope and merriment at a time of mortal conflict. He often wonders why this particular event from a century ago doesn’t receive more attention today. He was referring, of course, to the Christmas Truce of 1914 and the unifying power of Christmas carols.

That truce broke out spontaneously along the Western Front on Christmas Eve early in World War I. (See my column for Nov. 6, 2014.)

British and German soldiers were entrenched within earshot of each other, when from the German side came the sound of singing: “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” – “Silent night, holy night.”

British soldiers soon joined in and an informal truce was arranged between the two sides. The combatants climbed out of their trenches and exchanged brandy, candy, cigarettes, souvenirs and lots of goodwill.

Sadly, when the top brass got wind of this, they ordered the men back to the trenches and to engage each other in their gun sights again.

I think often of the power of sacred music to bring people together who, by their group memberships, are often at odds, expressed not necessarily at the point of a gun, but certainly in subtler ways. This is especially obvious in historic disputes and rivalries among people of differing religious opinions.

When I mentioned this recently to Nathene Arthur, Music Director at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Cochrane, she shared with me a recent experience of her own that echoed the Christmas Truce. It involved her good friend and former piano student, Janet Barr, Choir Director at Cochrane’s Latter Day Saints (Mormon) Church, who had come over to Nathene’s to work through a piano piece she was preparing for their Christmas service.

“We soon began chatting about how instruments like cellos and hand bells beautify those Christmas hymns we love,” Nathene told me, “and how the composers and choral arrangers were so inspired. We both are grateful for those special voices who, home from university, join us at this season. They, too, touch our souls with their God-given talents, and we feel His blessing. As Janet said, ‘It’s like the music of heaven.’”

As they played and sang arrangements of Silent Night and other carols, Nathene said, they both felt the joy of being able to share this gift of sacred music with their respective congregations.

Nathene’s comment motivated me to look through my fairly large assortment of hymn books from across the whole spectrum of English-speaking Christianity. And there they were, denominational differences aside; they all included those Christmas carols so many of us know by heart: Hark, the Herald Angels Sing; Joy to the World; O Come, All Ye Faithful; and yes, evocative of that memorable Christmas Eve of 1914, Silent Night.

And in that I see a reminder for all of us this Christmas season: a rainbow of sacred loveliness invites us, too, to rise from the trenches of our differences and once more be united in the spirit of glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace.


© 2017 Warren Harbeck

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