Recently I re-watched the 1949 film, Battleground, directed by William Wellman and starring Van Johnson, James Whitmore, and Ricardo Montalban. It’s not exactly a cultural Christmas season favorite. It doesn’t run for thirty-six consecutive hours on cable movie channels. It’s not Capra-esque. There are no schoolyard antics involving freezing cold flagpoles. It doesn’t even mention Santa Claus. However, it is a moving portrayal of the friendships, bravery, hardships, losses, and ultimate victory of American troops surrounded at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. It is a bit dated but gives us a view of the psychological strain, freezing cold, relentless artillery barrages, and other horrors of war endured by the liberation forces who dug in to stop Hitler’s final offensive of the war. And it is worth watching as a reminder of the sacrifices made to preserve freedom and defeat the oppressive evils of the axis powers. It is also a reminder that sacrifices are still being made today, that men and women are presently in harm’s way, separated from loved ones at a time of year when the rest of us will gather at parties and around family hearths and tables to enjoy Christmas and all its trimmings. I am acutely aware that this is a time of year when we can be guilty of taking things too much for granted—that our holiday fun and merriment distract us from the substance of the season.
The world is a dangerous place. Freedom is more precarious than most of us suppose from our relatively comfortable vantage points. Tyrants and totalitarian regimes still exist. People are still violently oppressed. Liberty is still withheld from some and stripped from others in settings where rule by power and not rule of law is the prevailing political paradigm. Genocide still occurs. There are places in the world today where men, women, and children are imprisoned and even killed for their faith and religious beliefs. Children are being sold into slavery daily. And evil men prosper. The state of the world and even the societal and cultural troubles of the home-front seem incongruous with frivolity of much of our Christmas activities. When thinking on all of these things, it is sometimes difficult to even conceive of a “Merry” Christmas. This is precisely what General McAuliffe, commander of the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne, was feeling when he wrote in a Christmas letter to his troops, “What’s Merry about all this, you ask? We’re fighting—it’s cold—we aren’t home.” McAuliffe went on to outline their accomplishments, the importance of their mission, the need for them to hold fast and fight on, as well as the evidence that the tide was turning—there was reason to hope. His Christmas letter is not eloquent. It is not particularly memorable. But it must have spoken volumes to those men huddled in frozen foxholes staring into great peril on Christmas with Christmas festivities so far beyond their reach.
And this is the great beauty of Christmas. It is not about what is beyond our reach. It is about God reaching into our fallen, broken, and violent world. It is about hope and peace and reconciliation that comes through faith in Jesus Christ whose birth we celebrate at this advent season. After weeks of inclimate weather that kept allied air forces from supporting the surrounded troops, on Christmas day the clouds broke, literally, giving the allied forces the conditions they needed for victory and advancing their hopes for peace and a safe return home.
As we mark another Christmas, perhaps we could be more mindful of those serving on the frontlines in hard places. Perhaps we could be a little more mindful of the harshness others experience in life. Perhaps we could give reflective consideration to the substance of the season, and glimpse the breaking of the clouds and the peace and hope that Christmas and the coming of the Savior affords us.