Remembrance: honouring the past, working for peace
Peter Seal, 11 November 2018
Psalm 121; John 15: 9–17
Today, here in this part of Winchester, we seek to play our part in commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armistice – the treaty signed by the Allies and Germany at Compiègne in France – which ended World War One. The truce went into effect at the eleventh hour on the 11th of November 1918.
On that first Armistice Day, the bells rang out and the people of this country celebrated the end of the bloody conflict that had cost so many lives, and the hope that they could now live in peace. The parents of a soldier who lived in Monkmoor Road, Shrewsbury, were at home listening to their local bells. The doorbell rang, and they received news of the death of their soldier son. His name: Wilfred Owen. He had been fatally wounded in action while attempting to lead his men across the Sambre Canal at Ors just a week before the signing of the Armistice.
Here is just one small picture of the devastating, heart-breaking effect of war. We cannot begin to imagine the agony of Owen’s parents, and of the loved ones of countless others, who received similar telegrams – people whose lives were changed for ever.
Owen was one of the finest poets of World War One. Many of us will share vivid memories of studying some of his poems at school. They had a deep effect. Owen did not depict the war in a sentimental way, as some noble undertaking, but instead his aim was to tell the truth about his experiences on the Western Front – the horror and brutality of modern industrial warfare, the suffering it brings and a warning about what men were doing to each other.
In his poem ‘Strange Meeting’, which Owen wrote in the spring or early summer of 1918, two soldiers who fought on opposing sides meet in an imagined hell. One has killed the other, but despite the fact that they were enemies, there is no animosity on the part of the man who was killed.
He lifts ‘distressed hands, as if to bless’ his killer. There is the famous line, ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’. No longer enemies, they find it possible to see beyond conflict and hatred and be reconciled to one another. This is the clear message of the poem: humankind must seek reconciliation. However, Owen is painfully realistic, and he also expresses his fear that enemies will not be reconciled, that ‘men will go content with what we spoiled’ and not have learned the truth about the ‘pity of war’.
Today it is so right that we remember those who have died in war, giving profound thanks for the sacrifices of the World War I generation, who made it possible for us to live our lives in peace. There have been so many extraordinarily moving stories in the media in recent days from the families of those whose young men were killed. At the back of St Paul’s are banners telling the stories of some soldiers who lived near here.
We struggle to comprehend the horror and the pain; we weep at the cost of bereavement; we quail to imagine the physical and mental anguish of those who survived – those who were never the same again, who could never speak the secrets of their personal anguish.
In order to cope and begin to make any sense of it at all, I believe that we need to believe in another life, beyond this life. We need to believe that all that was never realised in their lives, because they were cut short, found – and finds – fulfilment in life beyond death.
Memories of the victims of war have a vital honoured place, but surely there’s more to it than memories. Surely, in God’s eternal purposes, nothing is lost for ever. I believe this.
The essential, core Christian belief is that that the man Jesus, though himself brutally tortured and killed, lived again beyond his death. He lived again in a new way. There is continuity and yet radical difference. Jesus’ resurrection body bore the scars in hands, feet, head and side – that was how he was recognised – but he was also quite different.
In God’s heavenly home the war dead have their place. There will be a new way of living characterised by reconciliation and love for one’s human brothers and sisters, as so beautifully portrayed in today’s gospel reading. Jesus says, ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’
What the Christian faith does supremely well is give human existence – our living, loving and dying – a bigger frame and a wider perspective. The belief that God is the source of all human life, that he sustains this wondrous world each day, and that he invites us to a new life beyond our dying, gives us deep, lasting, unshakable hope.
The belief that God is the source of all human life, that he sustains this wondrous world each day, and that he invites us to a new life beyond our dying, gives us deep, lasting, unshakable hope.
Today’s reading from the much-loved Psalm 121 puts it this way, in the form of a question:
I lift up my eyes to the hills;
From where is my help to come?
And then comes the reply:
My help comes from the Lord,
The maker of heaven and earth.
Whatever age each of us is, we have a duty to honour the past and work for peace. There’s a powerful passage in a prayer we use at Advent. It comes from the Iona Community:
Behind talk of world peace,
we hear the machinery of war;
beneath talk of global equality
we detect the posturing of the powerful.
In our day we hear rather too much posturing from some world leaders. I’m reminded of that saying, ‘Careless talk costs lives’. What we say, and the way we say it, has an enormous effect for good or otherwise. Rapid-response, quick-fire, tweet-type communication is, by definition, not thought through or reflected on.
Part of our calling as thinking, caring, imaginative, sensitive human beings is to really engage with the complexities of our world; to engage with changing things for the better as much as we possibly can. We’re called to be both polite and very patient.
Part of our calling as thinking, caring, imaginative, sensitive human beings is to really engage with the complexities of our world; to engage with changing things for the better as much as we possibly can.
As well as the terrible loss of human life, both in the armed forces and among civilians, there were animals that just did not understand at all – horses screaming and dogs howling. And then there was the loss of flora and fauna, of homes and other buildings, and of infrastructure. Whenever I see pictures of violence and warfare, whether from times past or today, there’s always that inevitable pall of black smoke billowing up into the earth’s atmosphere.
Maybe part of our working for peace, in a very tangible way, is to renew our commitment to caring for our planet. We can’t ever say that we haven’t been warned about the lasting effects of pollution caused by human activity. David Attenborough, Prince Charles and many others are doing such important work in raising our awareness of the effects of the way we live on our planet. One way we can show our love for the younger generations is to work for peace, reducing emissions, so that our created world itself can provide for the human population in the decades to come.
So, in conclusion: today is about red poppies and white poppies, which together give us our theme: ‘Honouring the past, working for peace’.