A DARK RIDE
WAS on my bicycle, and had reached the level-crossing of the railway. 'Halt! Who goes there?' 'A friend---a chaplain.' ' Pass, friend; but put your light out.'
In this land where a strange tongue is spoken it is always sweet to hear some lone sentry, hidden away in the folds of darkness, utter the comforting words, 'Pass, friend'---especially if, a moment before, he has startled you by his unexpected and threatening 'Halt!' He was England's guardian, and he called me 'friend' ---England's friend. Yes, the words were sweet as words may be.
But his other words, 'Put your light out,' were not sweet. A light for the path on a dark night in a foreign land is a pleasant companion to one who travels alone. Besides, I was particularly proud of my lamp that night, and had put my trust in it. I have a strain of the 'Foolish Virgins' in me. Usually I take the lamp because it happens to be on the bicycle---but sometimes forget to take any oil either in it or with it. I had been on this road in the morning, however, and knew that I was 'tempting providence' by going on it at night. I had, therefore, seen that the lamp was trimmed for this journey. It was a little wick lamp, filled with paraffin, and could not burn without smoking; but it gave a light, and, however modest, a light was precious on such a night. The sentry's demand filled me with despair. It was as if the stars had fallen into the sea.
'Put out my light!' I exclaimed.
'Yes, sir; no lights are allowed between here and the trenches.'
'But,' I said, willing to face only one half of the facts, 'it's just from here onward that I need a light.'
'Sorry, sir, but it can't be helped. Orders is orders.'
It was the voice of the inevitable that spoke. He was a private and called me 'sir,' but I knew I must obey him. Behind him stood all the might of Britain, and, dimly, he knew it. I might as well supplicate 'the man in the moon' as plead with him for the life of my little lamp. For privates and generals alike 'orders is orders.' We all come to the crossing where the light has to go out. A man is a vain thing, and always coming up against something mightier than himself to which he must bow--sometimes with smiles and sometimes with tears. I blew out my light and looked into the darkness. There was no moon. The upper air was filled with a wet mist that blinded most of the stars. The few that peered through at the earth looked weak and watery, like the eyes of a drunkard. They would be of little use to a cyclist.
Every few seconds bright lights waxed and waned in the distance. They were the beautiful star-shells that all night long light up 'No Man's Land.' They affect one strangely. I have seen that 'No Man's Land' from the firing-trench---peeping cautiously 'over the top,' and, afterwards, studying it more leisurely through a periscope. There I could see ' Mystery Wood,' where, in a great and unsuccessful battle, three British battalions disappeared and have never been heard of since. These bright lights were rising from near 'Mystery Wood.' They were being sent up by the Germans, who are nervous at nights. But they seemed more like bright signals from the long-lost battalions. The lights were pure and bright as the memory of the dead, but I could not steer by them. Their gleams were too fitful.
Yet I must on. On my bicycle I carried a Bible and hymn-books. I carried bread and wine. Away in the darkness was a barn, fireless and draughty. The air was damp and the wind bitter. But in the barn would be a few soldier lads waiting for that Bible, those songs, and that memorable bread and wine. I must not fail them. The previous Sunday they were in the firing-line, and could have no service. Even this morning, though I had called a service for nine o'clock, none had come, and I had waited in vain. All were on fatigue duties. The colonel had warned me, but I had taken the risk. I must take the risk again. One or two hungry souls might be free to come to the feast, and the table must be spread. But I had no light for the way!
During the week a mother had asked me to make inquiries about her boy, who was reported 'missing,' and believed to be, killed. 'Please, sir,' she had written with an illiterate hand, 'I don't know what to do. I am a widow, and ill, and he is all I had.' It is but one of hundreds of such letters that have come to me. He was her lamp, her beautiful lamp, the lamp that was to light her to the end of her journey. She had counted on him to go with her as her eyes grew dim with age and her step feeble. He would be a 'lamp unto her feet, and a light unto her path.' But now his light was quenched; and as she looked into the darkness and thought of the way before her, the pitiful and piercing cry escaped her, "I don't know what to do. He is all I had.' Yet she must on.
In the early part of the month I was in a night train taking my wife back to her home, from which I had to start for France a few hours later. And a minister in the other corner told me how his brother---a famous Greek scholar---had lost his son. The bullet had gone through the Greek Testament in the boy's breast-pocket. Before such a tragedy no words may be spoken. Yet the father must on. Though his lamp lies shattered, the road must be trod. There are eyes peering through the darkness for his coming, and ears that listen for a foot that is 'beautiful upon the mountains.' There are hearts that wait for his message and the bread and the wine he brings. 'Pass, friend.' 'Tis the voice of a private to a captain under the weeping mist that shadows a world.
Perhaps while I was standing hesitant before the darkness that swallowed up the road some brother minister at home hid his face in his hands as he leaned over the table in the church vestry. It was time for the service, but the stewards kept silence. His soul was in the garden of sorrow, and they 'stood as it were a stone's throw from him.' Often he had looked into the bright face of his boy, and whispered to the mother, 'At eventide there shall be light.' But now he has come to the crossing, and the light has been quenched. May he not turn back home and be alone with his sorrow? Must he pass through that door into the church with its thousand eyes? 'Pass, friend,' whispered duty; 'there are other stricken souls beyond the door. Take them your Bible and your songs, your strengthening bread and gladdening wine.' As he passed through the door some one's life brightened as he passed-some poor ailing widow who had known not what to do because. she had lost her all.
It is not kings who govern us. It is the children we once were. Had the boy I used to be learned to cycle, I should have been an expert now. But the rascal did not; he went gathering flowers and watching fledglings in their nests instead, and I, the man, have to suffer for his negligences. But he has my forgiveness, for in my heart his flowers are still blooming and his birds singing. Like George Stephenson's 'Rocket,' I do my best, but it's woe to the cow, or soldier, who gets in my way, as one of the men realized when I collided with him on the return journey. And it is woe to me, for I am not a man of iron. 'Keep to your right,' called, approvingly, two soldierlike figures emerging from the darkness. 'Thanks,' I said as I passed. I was doing my best to keep the French rule of the road, and was pleased to think they could see that my intentions, if not achievements, were good. The road had a hump like a camel, and if you missed the exact centre the tires slipped down the side of the hump, and you needed cat's feet to come to ground with. If you kept to the centre of the greasy road---which was as difficult as climbing a greasy pole---you would probably find, when it was too late, that some soldier was just as silently and swiftly cycling along the middle of the hump from the other direction; and a salvage corps would be needed to gather up the fragments that remained and decide which was soldier and which chaplain. If, to avoid giving the salvage corps more work, you kept to the right, then you cycled through an endless series of puddles, and the bicycle pitched and tossed like the troopship that carried you across the channel. On each side of the road was a deep ditch full of water, as in our own fen country. If, therefore, you missed the glint of the puddles and went a little too far to the right, you pitched into the ditch, for there was nothing to keep you out except your predilections.
I had not gone a hundred yards when I heard the unwelcome rumble of a wagon. It came looming out of the darkness with the slow, shuffling gait of a 'tank,' but it had none of the 'tank's' cheerful 'clack, clack.' I rang the bell, and the shapeless hulk slunk nearer to the ditch on its right. 'You are a born fool to take such risks,' I whispered to myself (by way of encouragement), as I dimly glanced at the space between the wagon and the ditch. I tried to steer a middle course, but the ditch water, how it gleamed! Memories of boyhood's catastrophes overwhelmed me, and I recoiled from the water's glint as from an evil eye. My shoulder knocked against the rear wheel of the wagon, the bicycle staggered under the impact, and then, after a moment of 'philosophic doubt,' righted itself and pursued the uneven tenor of its way. 'That shall be a warning,' I muttered; 'I will get off next time.' I did, but the vehicle turned out to be a limber, and it was narrow enough for me to have ridden past. 'I shall stay on next time,' I resolved. Who can know what is best for him? The old man knows, but his wisdom comes too late. His journey is done. He can convey his property to another, but not his wisdom. Wise words are not wisdom, except to the already wise.
I had been sliding and pitching and tossing for some yards when, suddenly, the wheels, losing patience with one another, dissolved partnership; the front wheel turning one way and the back wheel another. Catlike, I fell on my feet, for I keep the bicycle seat low in anticipation of such side-slips. But the left spring of the saddle was broken in the fall, and when I remounted the balance of the bicycle was disturbed, and I lived in fear and dread---like a man with one lung or a reduced stipend---of losing that which remained.
At last I reached the barn. It was just behind the first-line trenches. The sharp crack of the machine-guns filled the air with a myriad sounds, and the beautiful star-shells lit up the sky. Inside the barn I found ten soldiers lads round a candle.
'We are so glad you've come,' they said; 'we were afraid something had happened to you. We could not come this morning. We were on fatigue duties.'
One of the lads had been present at the Sacrament before the last big battle, and had given me his mother's address. Another had heard me at the East Ham Mission in the days of peace. A third was from Boston, and a fourth from Thornton Heath. I got out my candles and we lit up the old barn. It was cold and draughty, so I put my coat on again. It was Sunday night, and about service time, and we thought of our people at home.
I had just been home on leave, and on one of the Sundays the preacher had forgotten the lads at the Front all day in his prayers. Forgotten these lads who were dying for him I When I heard the Benediction, and knew that his last chance was gone, tears came into my eyes, and I wanted to be back with the lads who could be so great, though so forgotten. Never a service comes in which we forget to pray for the people at home. Can we forget that we have dear ones, and that they are not here? We thought of the old pew, the organ, the choir, the preacher. We sang the old hymns. We had no organ, but it was sweeter than the sweetest organ to hear those ten lads sing:
At even, ere the sun was set.
I spoke to them from the words, 'Can God furnish a table in the wilderness?' (Ps. lxxviii. 19). Then we sang 'When I survey the wondrous cross,' and after prayer we gathered round the Lord's table to partake of the supper which He had spread for us, even in the wilderness.
'ALL SEATED ON THE GROUND'
OUR regiments are serving short periods in the trenches followed by more restful periods in billets. When they are out of the trenches they are kept in reserve in some tiny village just behind the line, and are employed on fatigue duties. Last Sunday two of my regiments were in billets, and, as they will be in the trenches next Sunday, I had to give them their Christmas sermon early. Both services were held in barns used as billets, but I will only describe one of them. There was no fire, and there were no seats. The place was draughty and the light dim. But what did we care? We sang Christmas hymns; and we prayed for the people at home. Our Christmas will be happier than theirs, for they have to live in the old places, and go through the old festivities, without the old faces; whereas here all is strange, and we listen for no light foot, and look at no favourite chair or couch for one who is not there. After the third carol I asked them to make themselves as comfortable as they could for the sermon---for we give them sermons out here; they would not like it if we did not; it would not be like home. There was a minute or two's bustle and then they were quiet---'all seated on the ground.' 'Now you are like the shepherds watching their flocks by night,' I said, and they laughed, for they are Londoners and hardly know a sheep from a goat; but it was a bit of 'make believe' such as they have indulged in by many a Christmas fire before this great trouble came upon the world. In Jack London's White Fang there is a vivid picture of a campfire at night on the prairie. A few yards beyond the fire the two travellers could, in the darkness, see innumerable pairs of shining eyes. The wolves could not be seen, only their eyes. In our barn the light was dim. The men were a mass of khaki, but their eyes shone like lamps on a dark night. Thinking of them now I cannot recall their faces with any vividness. I just see against the blur of khaki scores of pairs of beautiful eyes.
'I want to speak to you this morning,' I said, 'about some of the principles upon which God governs this world of His. Turn to St. Matt. ii. 18, 19, and 20. "In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not. But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, Arise, and take the young child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child's life."
'When the Herods die the angels appear. They have been close at hand all the time, hidden within the shadows, keeping watch above God's own.
The angels keep their ancient places;
Turn but a stone and start a wing;
'Tis our, 'tis our estranged faces
That miss the many-splendoured thing.
'We must never forget the powers of the world to come. There are forces about us that cannot be seen with the eyes. Moses made a nation out of a rabble, and led it through a vast wilderness of despair and failure to the land of promise because he "endured as seeing Him who is invisible." You have heard of the angels at Mons. It is a legend, but it is the enshrinement of the truth. In this War we are on the side of the angels, and they fight for us. Elisha's servant, when he saw the enemy surrounding his master, lost all hope and yielded to despair. But when the eyes of his soul were opened he saw that the hills were aflame with the rescuing angels of God. As Elisha's enemies were led away captive they felt a power they could neither see nor understand. Elisha understood because he was a seer, and had visions of the powers that lie behind this physical world of ours. When Christ was tempted forty days and nights of the devil in the wilderness there was nothing to see but the rank grass, the barren stones, and the wild beasts that prowled around Him, but when the temptation was ended we read that 14 angels came and ministered unto Him." They had been within call all the time, and you had to "turn but a stone and start a wing." Herod of old was a mighty man, and he left the women of Israel "nothing but their eyes to weep with." He pursued a policy of "frightfulness," and there was none to oppose him, but just when his crown seemed secure from the infant "King of the Jews" he was slain.
In our time a new Herod has arisen, and throughout Europe there are "lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning." Rachel is weeping for her children, and will not be comforted because they are not. The new tyrant has seen the young babe Liberty, and knows it to be a king. He trembles for his crown, and has resolved that Liberty shall die before it can grow and gather strength. Before he sent his soldiers against freedom-loving France he had told them that they might some day be called upon to shoot down his enemies in the Fatherland, for he looked upon his Socialist subjects with growing distrust and dismay. Mankind, however, was not made for kings, but kings for mankind, and this is not the Kaiser's world, but God's. God is still the "All Highest," and the nations of the earth are His family. Millions of innocent men, women, and children have already been slain, and the end is not yet. But the little child Liberty is not slain; it is but exiled. As under the guidance of angels Joseph and Mary protected the little prince Jesus, so in the providence of God England and France are delivering the young child Liberty from the craft and cruelty of the king that would destroy it. When the great tyranny is past, Liberty will return to Europe and grow in strength and graciousness. It is a king under whose reign righteousness, and peace, and brotherhood will flourish. Our trust is not in ourselves nor in our carnal weapons, but in
God the Omnipotent! Mighty Avenger,
Watching invisible, judging unheard.
If we have not been mistaken about the righteousness of our cause we cannot doubt its triumph. With " heaven-erected face " we can say:
God the All-wise I by the fire of Thy chastening
Earth shall to freedom and truth be restored;
Through the thick darkness Thy kingdom is hastening-,
Thou wilt give peace in Thy time, O Lord
So shall Thy children, in thankful devotion,
Laud Him who saved them from peril abhorred,
Singing in chorus, from ocean to ocean,
"Peace to the nations and praise to the Lord."
We must live in communion with the Unseen, and, through the dark months ahead, "endure as seeing Him who is invisible." Those whom we have left behind us on the Somme have not died in vain. They are as the morning star that ushers in the dawn. Their lives have been abridged that the lives of others, in countless numbers, may be enlarged and made glorious. Their unfinished work you have to carry on. Despite hardship and danger,
Workmen of God! O lose not heart,
But learn what God is like;
And in the darkest battlefield
Thou shalt know where to strike.
For right is right, since God is God;
And right the day must win;
To doubt would be disloyalty,
To falter would be sin.
The little Child who came to us at Christmas has changed all life. He began a new era, and we do not count the years before Him. Each time you put the date on a letter you remind your friends at home that 1,916 years ago Christ gave the world a fresh start, and set in motion the noble influences which have made life, in your estimation, worth dying for. Herod sought to slay the Deliverer while yet a child, and throw the world back into the abyss of darkness. But Herod failed, and died, and when he was dead the angels appeared. Ever since we have greeted Christ's birthday with songs and feasting, for all that is sweet and pure we owe to Him. The day is not far distant when the angel of peace will appear to us in France as one appeared to Joseph in Egypt. and announce that Prussian tyranny is dead, and that the life of an infant Liberty is assured. We may still have doubts about the future, but they will prove as false as Joseph's fears of Herod's son. The part you have played in the triumph will never be forgotten. In all future ages men will speak of your deeds with reverence and gratitude, for they will remember the rights preserved by you, and the noble reforms and tendencies that came to birth and had their childhood during the great War.'
The eyes were gleaming up at me out of the khaki background---each pair the light of some home over the water. They are not the eyes that looked up at me in June from the daisy-spangled grass; and for many of these also I shall look in vain when a few more months have passed. When that time comes they will be looking on the angels that saved the Child, and on the Child that saved the world.
POPPIES AND BARBED WIRE
JUST behind the line where our men fought on July 1 there is a soldiers' cemetery which has become to me a garden of memories. If was a sunny morning when I first saw its white crosses and scarlet poppies. I was on my way to the adjoining village to arrange a service for one of my regiments which had been billeted there for fatigue duties. There was no sign of a cemetery until one got in front of it, for the side view was obstructed. Suddenly rows of little white crosses glinting in the sun startled the sight, and awoke the imagination to scenes of battle and sudden death. The appeal of the crosses was irresistible, and I jumped off my bicycle to look at the names. There were soldiers from many counties lying there, and upon some cross might be a name familiar and loved. Who could tell?
In the far right-hand corner a burial party was at work. I asked what had happened, and they told me. An hour before, the Germans had shelled the village, and four men had been killed. At breakfast the four lads were happy and bright, eating heartily and laughing merrily. By dinnertime they were wrapped in their blankets and lying silent in death. At teatime they were sleeping in the graves which comrades had dug for them. As I entered the village I saw the deep hole in the road where the shell had burst. There had been no time to fill it in, and I had to wheel my bicycle round it. The Sunday following we had our service on the stretch of grass within the cemetery. It did not seem a melancholy place for worship. Somehow death seems different out here. It looks more natural, for our burials have more of simple faith and less of pagan pageantry. We use no coffin, wear no black, shed no tears, and lay upon the graves no dying flowers. Our brothers fall asleep, we gently wrap them in their blankets, and lay them in their narrow beds. They are in God's keeping. It may be our turn next to 'go west.' But the day's work must be done, and the day's laughter found, ere the Last Post bids us retire for the night. We therefore held our services near our sleeping comrades, and felt no melancholy. We knew how they had died, and why. We did not think of them as dead, but as men who had 'done their bit' and were taking their rest. They were our 'great cloud of witnesses.'
At the close of the Communion Service a soldier asked for a few minutes' conversation. He had not partaken of the bread and wine because he had not made his peace with God. A few days before he had been over the parapet, and amid the danger and tumult of battle had realized how unfit he was to be initiated into the mysteries of death and eternity. As the other lads wandered away we knelt down together on the grass. 'Almighty God,' we prayed, 'Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, judge of all men; we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against Thy Divine Majesty, provoking most justly Thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; for Thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ's sake, forgive us all that is past, and grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please Thee in newness of life, to the honour and glory of Thy name, through Jesus Christ our Lord.' Then in the presence of that silent congregation I gave to him the bread and wine.
Other services followed, sometimes on Sundays and sometimes on week-days. One Friday evening I was cycling to our old meeting-place, and marvelling at the beauty of the landscape and its indifference to war. To the right and left stretched countless acres of corn-land. Various kinds of grain had been sown in great patches, and, as there were no hedges or homesteads, the landscape looked like a vast patchwork quilt of Nature's designing. Through the midst of it all, and in front of the cemetery, ran our second line of defence. Millions of yards of barbed wire had been twisted into an impassable, network of spikes. If our front line gave way our soldiers were to retire behind the barbed wire, and the enemy, caught and held by the spikes, would be mown down like corn before the reaper, yet who could think of such things there? Shells fell in the distance, and sent up black clouds, but they were little heeded, and women could be seen working, half hidden, among the corn. There were scores of aeroplanes overhead, and two anti-aircraft guns by the road, but the sky was blue and the clouds of purest white. Larks had not ceased to sing. The barbed wire was a mass of green and scarlet, for the grass had grown unchecked all the summer, and innumerable poppies lifted high their heads as though to cover with their beauty the ugly and threatening spikes. In the cemetery itself poppies were fluttering their crimson wings over every grave. Out of the blue sky, at any moment, might leap the thunderbolt of death, and no soldier moved about without a helmet. Were not the four graves in the corner reminder enough? Yet it was impossible to realize the nearness of war and death. The poppies were too beautiful. They were real, but the War seemed a dream of the night.
Only one of my lads could come to the service. Some were out on fatigue duties, and the rest were going out with the night-digging party. The youth who came was a teacher who had been trained at our Westminster College. He had served in Gallipoli',' and belonged to the division known as 'The Incomparable.' To France he had come just in time for the great offensive, and had survived where many had fallen. We passed within the gate, and, kneeling on the soft green grass before the rows of white crosses, I gave to him the sacred bread and wine. It was his first Communion in France. And there, walking among the poppies, we found Him whom Mary in the Garden of the Sepulchre had called 'the Gardener.' We forgot the War and the bitterness of death. 'O death,' we could say, 'where is thy sting? 'O grave, where is thy victory?' It was the youth's last Sacrament, though we knew it not then. Now he, too, sleeps with his comrades, but farther south. When the summer comes the poppies will come and cover him, as they cover the lads in the garden where he last drank of the wine of God.
Poppies are the flowers of forgetfulness---the flowers of sleep and pleasant dreamings. And they bloom luxuriantly on the French front.
It is a mistake to suppose that the lads in France are in a state of constant distress and fear. They have times of terror and suffering, but they have also times of laughter and song. There is the barbed wire, but it is often overgrown with poppies. There are, on the whole, no men so cheerful as the men at the Front. They are simply full of laughter and good spirits. Often I hear shouts of laughter, and turn into a billet to see what the joke is. 'Oh, sir,' said one merrily, 'they're laughing at my mouth; they say it is like a suet pudding.' The joke does not need to be a good one to raise laughter, for their hearts are full of merriment, and, like full pails of water, easily overflow. It is their compensation for the hardships and dangers they undergo. Even to the trenches, or to battle, they set off from their billets with shouting and laughter. Who else have such a right to laugh and be careless? Have they not offered their all---laying it upon the altar? Some at home are troubled at this laughter, and fear their boys do not realize that they may suddenly be swept into eternity. But it is not so. There is hardly a boy ever goes into battle who does not beforehand give his mother's address to a chum. They have seen and heard too much not to meditate seriously on the nearness and meaning of death. Yet they set-out to meet it laughing. And why not? Is God so very terrible? He is not some pitiless monster of righteousness! He is a Father! And may not a child rush into a Father's room with shouting and laughter? I think our soldiers' laughter is due to a deeper faith than ours. They know the truth, and the truth has made them free.
Whether we go to God laughing or trembling depends on our conception of God. If He is a slave-driver we shall be beaten with many stripes for every offence; but if He is a Father He will know our frame and remember that we are dust. A father told me some years ago that he had been too stern with his children, and they had become afraid of him and dared not laugh or be themselves in his presence. It was a great sorrow to him. He wanted to be a father and friend to them, but they could only think of him as a stern judge. Our soldiers do not go to death thinking of God as a judge, but as a Father. They tell me that as they go over the parapet they 'just trust in God and try to do their bit.' They see the grave, but they also see the poppies of His planting. They feel that God will forget and forgive, like every true father. He may be more than a father, but He cannot be less. This conception of God is the soldiers' wreathing of poppies over the barbed wire of suffering and death.
And is there no poppy of peace to allay the anxiety and heartache of our friends at home? 'I wish,' said a wife to her husband, as he returned to France, 'I wish I could go to sleep, and not wake again until this terrible War is over, and you come back to me.' The barbed wire of war lacerates her heart, and the pain is wellnigh intolerable. Is there no heavenly poppy, no divine opium, for such suffering ones? There is. It is a poppy of Christ's planting. 'I will not leave you comfortless. I will come to you. Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you. Not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.' A peace that transcends the understanding is given, and it cannot be taken away. The soul can say, 'What time I am afraid I will trust in Thee. Nay, more. 'I will trust and not be afraid.' Though Death strikes the loved one in the field, the bereaved soul is still unafraid, both for herself and him. She finds the deeper peace that comes only to those who, at the call of the Highest, have sacrificed what they would like most to have kept. There comes the peace of Christ. Wars are made by men, but the Poppy of Peace is planted by God. The soldiers find it among the barbed wire, and the mourners will find it upon every grave.
THE ROSE IN THE SKY
A FEW days before Christmas I was walking down a communication-trench just as a heavy bombardment was ceasing. It was near four o'clock, and the sun, a deep red, was almost touching the horizon. A German shell burst some little distance away, high in the air, and formed a black ugly cloud. Slowly the rays of the sinking sun penetrated the cloud of smoke and turned it to a faint pink. As the pink deepened to rose, the cloud expanded under the influence of the soft wind, and within a few moments was transformed into a thing of beauty. It hung poised in mid-air, like a rose unfolding its fragrant petals, over the entrenched army.
The black cloud was of man's making, and revealed his hatred and spite; but its transformation into a thing of beauty and peace was God's doing, and revealed His love and goodwill as truly as did the rainbow to Noah. God's glorious sun, as it set in blood, turned man's cloud of war into heaven's rose of peace. Like the sun, God is at once near and afar off. He 'sits upon the circle of the earth,' and gilds our life with His own glory. Our black clouds He turns into roses and our curses into blessings. Man shoots his bolt and wreaks his wrath, and there seems none to hinder; but the last word is God's, and His the last act in our 'strange eventful story.' He is the mother who tidies up after the children have gone to bed. He is the master who touches up his students' pictures. Our black smudges He transforms into summer roses. Only to do good has man unlimited freedom. When he would do evil God is present to restrain and overrule. 'He makes the wrath of man to praise Him; the rest of it He doth restrain.' The War is an evil of man's making, but God will infuse it, has already infused it, with His own goodness. The world will be better after it than before it, as the sky was more beautiful when the shell-cloud had been transformed than it was even before it burst.
The shell-cloud was rosy because the sun was blood-red to a degree it seldom is. On Christmas morning we had a crowded service in a barn behind the line. For our prayers we used the Litany, and for our praises we sang Christmas carols. I had just prayed that we might be delivered from 'battle, murder, and sudden death,' and was reading the first verse of a carol, when a runner pushed his way through the men and handed me a note from one of my regiments in the trenches. Two of our men had been killed, and I was asked to arrange for their burial. In the afternoon I buried the two lads and two others beside them. A company commander, one of his lieutenants, and a number of men came to pay respect to their memory. As we walked away the captain asked, 'Why does not God stop this fearful slaughter?' I could not answer. Nor could I say why the sun was blood-red as it sank a few days before. But I know the black shell-cloud turned rosy because the sun was red. And I know that the world's liberties are being saved because those four lads are lying in a soldiers' cemetery. If peace were a mechanical or political thing God might step in and stop the War. But 'peace and goodwill towards Men' are spiritual things, and must work themselves out in the souls of men.
After the burial I walked down to the trenches, and about six o'clock a heavy bombardment of our line began. With our backs to the side of the trench we listened, in the darkness, to the crash of bursting shells and the whirr of falling fragments. It was a weird Christmas evening, but there was no complaint.
Each knew that if his children were ever to hear the singing of the Christmas angels he must stand there listening to the screaming shells. If ever they were to see the Star of Bethlehem, he must be content for a time with the starshells that every now and then lit up the ground. None asked for a false peace. Peace is not made by politics but by martyrdom. The lads killed in the trenches have died for more than the homeland. They have died for all generations and all lands. Their sun set early, and set in blood, but as they 'went west' the light of their free spirits transformed the cloud of tyranny into a rose of freedom. From their parents and wives the rose may be hidden by the black night of weeping; but when the morrow dawns the children A look into a sky without a cloud. As under the rainbow seedtime and harvest cannot fail, so under the rose of freedom 'peace and goodwill' shall know no end. Never again will such a flood of lust and tyranny overwhelm mankind. Our children shall play 'under their own vine and figtree, none daring to make them afraid.' And, as it is in England and in France, so it shall be in all lands, for our soldiers have bought liberty for all.
Table of Contents