Christ(mas) in the Trench
Wounds must heal wounds. He became one of the wounded because he wanted to be one of us. And therefore that Face does not vanish when the candles go out. For this Figure knows everything; of my loneliness, when I am alone or in the midst of my fellows, of the things in my life that I cannot handle, of the villain who is bedeviling me, of all my fears. For this Companion is with me in the front-line trenches.
An excerpt from "Christ and the Meaning of Life" by Helmut Thielicke:
"When I was bombed out with my family, and on the following evening walked through the quiet, peaceful streets of the village, looking for emergency quarters, I had a curious experience. Before this I had often recovered from the sight of ruins and the heaviness of heat that came at nightfall by sending my imagination off on a journey. I thought of a peaceful village with cows coming down the roads to the barns, and people talking about the harvest and sitting around the lamp in the evening, a place that was spared the tumult of war. The people said a friendly “Good evening,” the cozy lamplight shone through the chinks in the black-out curtains, and everything was as I had imagined it to be. But the longed-for peace would not come into my heart. I felt ostracized and the idyllic scene was tormenting rather than tranquilizing.
In the next few days it drove me back to the ruined city and the people whose faces were still marked by the runes of terror. There I felt at home. They understood what I had gone through because they had suffered it themselves. The people in the peaceful village did not understand. To them I was a somewhat disquieting apparition from another, frightening world. There is nothing more comforting than to have people who understand one. This is what drove many soldiers who had been at the front, and then on the leave enjoyed a good soft bed for a few nights, back to their comrades in the Russian steppe. When a person is pressed hard by dread and terror, then home and fulfillment and the people who are fortunate and have everything – these suddenly become alien."
This also has something to do with the fact that of all people it is the poets who have become the pastors of our time, who do not hand out idylls, fulfillments, and solutions to the problems, but rather cry out their dread, their nothingness, and their despair to the world. How else can we explain the fact that the people reach out for the poems of Gottfried Benn? The “Song of the Passion” says: Wounds must heal wounds. The wounded seek refuge with the wounded. There they are understood, and that by itself means a lot.
Every year around Christmastime thoughts like these come to me. People strain themselves to the utmost to give themselves and other a few hours of joy. Wishes are fulfilled; we step out of the moment, in which ordinarily we are completely absorbed, and restore connection with our own childhood. We remember our mothers in whose protecting care we once lived, the mothers who told us about the Christ Child and Father Christmas. The hardest men sing touching little songs, and in the soft light of candles our hearts leap up. We seek these hours in the same way that years ago I sought out the quiet, secure little village, in the same way that Hungarians may yearn for the shores of freedom. And then when the candles burn down, leaving only blackened stumps or nothing at all, there comes a secret feeling of uneasiness; we have to go back behind the counter again in the big store, back to our examinations, the flurry in the office, or a clattering machine. This quiet world around the candles is so different from our ordinary life that we cannot connect the two and in a short time the brightness vanishes behind us – like the lights of the station when we pass the curve.
But the intent of Christmas is something totally different. The child in the crib is not an idyl. It is only our love and often our sentimentality which have turned his story into an idyl. The child was homeless. He was shoved off into a stable. Shortly afterwards his parents went out on the road as refugees in order to escape Herod’s massacre of the children. Then came the life-long hostility of men; the Child always remained, even after he grew up, a fugitive. His heart trembled under the impact of all the temptations and fears that shake us too. And finally this life ended as it began, as he was shoved out of this world; he died on a gallows that had the form of a cross. This Man who loved infinitely, and therefore suffered infinitely as he saw men running headlong to their own destruction – they had no use for him. Crib and cross – they are both of the same wood, they are of a piece.
And I believe that all of this, with all its terror, is infinitely more comforting than the soft, sweet spirit we seek at Christmas, which afterwards leaves only a hung-over, letdown feeling as if it is the only thing there is in it. Jesus Christ did not remain at the base headquarters in heaven, receiving reports of the world’s suffering from below and shouting a few encouraging words to us from a safe distance. No, he left the headquarters and came down to us in the front-line trenches, right down to where we live and worry about what the Bolsheviks may do, where we contend with our anxieties and the feelings of emptiness and futility, where we sin and suffer guilt, and where we must finally die. There is nothing that he did not endure with us. He understands everything.
Or do we no longer sense how knowing are the features of this face, which the painters lent even the child and which later gazed upon us from the cross? He does not wear the disinterested face of the people who live in the village called “religion” far behind the mountains of the wicked world; he has the eyes of a person who knows his way about the ruins of our life. Wounds must heal wounds. He became one of the wounded because he wanted to be one of us. And therefore that Face does not vanish when the candles go out. For this Figure knows everything; of my loneliness, when I am alone or in the midst of my fellows, of the things in my life that I cannot handle, of the villain who is bedeviling me, of all my fears. For this Companion is with me in the front-line trenches. I can accept everything from his hand, for his hand knows and controls all things. And he lets down the drawbridge by which I can enter the fortress, long since forgotten, where I shall be secure.
Here is One who is waiting and looking for me.