With thanks to the wonderful student performers in Christmas at Luther
This year's Christmas at Luther performance – titled "And On Earth, Peace"–marks an historic moment: 2014 is the hundredth anniversary of the "Christmas Armistice" of 1914, when ordinary German and English soldiers in the trenches on the Western Front, doing what their leaders officially would not, enacted an informal cease-fire to celebrate Christmas. British soldiers described Germans walking toward them saying "Merry Christmas" in English. They may have sung the famous carol that has both German and English words: Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. Silent Night, Holy Night. One German soldier said, "Christmas, the celebration of love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as our friends for a time."
And as the Luther choirs, candlelit in the Center for Faith and Life, sang that well-known song, sepia-toned photographs of uniformed World War I soldiers appeared, projected on the wall above their heads. One laughed, with his arms full of what one hoped were Christmas packages. Others struggled to set up a wreath. Others played a game of football. And, heartbreakingly, these lost faces floated above the ranks of young men and women who are just about their age: our students, making a joyful noise with all the air and light in their young lungs, making art within and through and upon the thing they and their listeners and their hollow instruments of wood and brass and string all have in common–bodies. The body is the only thing any artist has to work with, really. The frail ship of bone and nerve and blood that houses, somewhere, a soul. The body that struggles in a mustard-gas cloud or a police chokehold: I can't breathe. The body that lifts its arm to bow a cello or smite a brother. The body that hearkens to music, absorbing it through eye and ear, smiles or tears. This is the body we all share. And we need Christmas–and Jesus, the one who came to share our human body–to remind us of that. Because we find it so, so, easy to forget.
Art is miraculous at collapsing the distances we love to imagine between ourselves and others, across time and space. In Paideia and in my January-term study-abroad courses, students and I study Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel–those muscular lines of divinity imagined as human bodies–and ponder the link between flesh and spirit. How is it that a famously cranky man who complained in a sonnet about how his work in the narrow candlelit "den" of the Chapel bent his body crooked could still, working through that body, touch something that endures in and beyond matter, and more than 500 years later, still does? Thirty thousand years ago, in the Chauvet Cave in southern France, a nameless artist signed paintings of leaping horses and bison and lions with a handprint in red ink, including a little finger that seems to have broken and healed crookedly. Distance and time collapse at the sight, and the imagined touch, of that hand. Poet John Keats, who foresaw his own death at age 25 from tuberculosis, knew this power too. "This living hand," he wrote, "now warm and capable… See, here it is. I hold it towards you."
In creative writing class, we read Walt Whitman, whose "Leaves of Grass" sprawls across the page, generous and inclusive as his vision of the fraught American republic, "Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same." Whitman saw a brother off to fight for the Union in the Civil War and served, himself, as a nurse. Then as now, nursing makes for a bracing blend of spirit and fact. Whitman would have unbound stinking bandages and emptied bedpans, read and wrote letters, sat with boy after boy after dying boy. When he looked at grass, he saw "the beautiful uncut hair of graves," and spoke with tenderness to the grass and to the bodies it covered:
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.
Whitman knew what war did to bodies. The Civil War, like World War I–"the war of brother against brother"–was the most technologically advanced of its time, as-yet-unmatched in the machinery that allowed armies to tear each other's bodies to bits. By the end of the war, soldiers had learned to march into battle with their names and addresses pinned to their shirts, with their Bibles or miniature portraits or precious pocket talismans wrapped in oilcloth to keep them safe and relatively clean for the next of kin. Yet Whitman faced both death and the possibility of something after it: "All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses," he wrote, "And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier."
In the human anatomy lab in Sampson Hoffland, Luther students explore the body from within, dissecting cadavers to prepare for medical school and other health careers. Violinists and pianists, in particular, are interested in the structures of the hands. One student, a potter, made urns in which to hold the cremated remains of the people with whom he and his classmates had spent the semester, and he presented those urns at the end-of-the-semester ceremony in which students say goodbye. When I visited that lab myself, gentle blue-gowned students set a heart and a brain in my hands. See here, Dr. Weldon. The Circle of Willis. The Tree of Life. And it is a tree, the branching structure visible when the cerebellum is cross-sectioned. Like the Tree of Life in Christian story. Like the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis and Dante and Milton. Like Terrence Malick's luminous film. Like the iconic 200-year-old cottonwood tree in front of Main Building, burly and rustling with the particular multi-jointed leaf music only cottonwoods make. Like the symphonic analogy of the Tree of Life from Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species," "covering the crust of the earth with its branching and beautiful ramifications," and leading us, in Darwin's scrupulously scientific passive voice, to ponder the mystery through which "life was first breathed" into our visible and invisible world.
In Genesis, God's breath animates the body of the world. The breath of life, of music, moves over and through us all during Christmas at Luther as we listen and we sing, lifting our voices, feeling strangely moved and kind toward one another, even to strangers. It's Christmas, celebration of that infant with his starfish fingers, his wide-open eyes absorbing all that color, all that light. Imagine who that first soldier was who stuck a white rag on his gun and lifted it above the muddy lip of the trench, who first lifted his voice–in English or German?–to sing. Stille Nacht. Silent Night. Love's pure light. On the wall the sepia figures flickered. I looked at those dead boys and the young women and men beneath them whom I teach and care for every day. And I wept.
Each of us carries that tree of life in the flesh at the base of our brains, carries the rivers and waters of a common earth in our blood. Each of us can be broken by the violence of our fellow humans and of the machines that distance us from the death we deal. Each of us came from a woman's womb, once looked at the world with eyes that knew nothing of hate or fear or pain–only all that color, all that light. "Let there be light," God says in Genesis, bringing sight itself into being. Yet sight and vision aren't always the same. How different would everything be–everything–if we looked into another person's eyes and thought, first, Brother. Sister. No matter who they are. No matter who we are. Brother. Sister. How would it be if we looked across the trenches, saw that white rag on a stick, and laid down our own weapons? If we–to paraphrase the words of Isaiah 2:4–studied war no more?
The gospel song that quotes that verse speaks of laying down sword and shield, down by the riverside, to study war no more. Down by the riverside. Perhaps that's a river like the Upper Iowa that runs through campus, bearing fertilizer and pharmaceutical traces and deer-scat and soil and spinning leaves and quick darting trout, the copper-blue of their backs the exact color of the sky. Cottonwood trees drink deep from that river and flourish, leaning over the water in their own rustling song, as season by season the old ugly sword rusts forgotten in the grass, the blood on its blade drying to brown and falling back to the earth. That river flows through every body. That sword glints in every heart, where our red blood beats its anger and its love and its fear. That's where the laying-down begins. That's where the unburdening happens. That's where we look with new eyes on another human being and say brother and sister and mean it: in the dark tangled blessedness of every human heart.
That's why peace is work to be done with the body, like any other work, and like art. It lives in eyes and hands and feet and heart and brain and in the flickering holy thing that somehow despite everything we do still feel lives in this body with us. And–even in the heart of war, tearing the bodies of men and women and horses all over Europe in 1914–it is alive. That first man to lift his head above the trench and sing, who was he? And who was first to answer him?
In all our human shades of brown and pink and gold, we share the earth, a common body.
There is another song we sing, together and apart:
Let there be peace on earth. And let it begin with me.