SERMON BY THE VICAR, REMEMBRANCE/ALL SOULS 2015
Today, together with the whole country, we are commemorating Remembrance Sunday, established at the end of the Second World War to be the nearest Sunday to Armistice Day, November 11th. In this, we salute and honour those who have died for our country on active service in our armed forces, right up to today. This is an act of remembering, and it’s in that spirit in this Service that we hold in the loving embrace of God all our loved ones, whom we see no longer. The act of remembering, whether it be in the special circumstances of honouring the dead who die in war, or own loved ones who have died, either peacefully in their beds at the end of a long life, or in tragic circumstances where life has been cut short, is the same. So what are we doing when we remember? And how is remembering in this liturgical context different from a wistful nostalgia, where we long for things and people who have gone from us? I want to begin to answer that by using two words – one English, one Greek. The English word is – re-membering and the Greek is anamnesis.
The English word is re-membering, pronounced as two words, hyphenated. To re-member is literally to put things back together, joining up the pieces to make them whole. It is the opposite of dis-membering. So when we join up the pieces, we see the whole picture, and if we can say that of our lives, we are doing pretty well. In this context, like many other people have been fascinated by NASA’s Space programme, especially Voyagers 1 and 2, now into their 33rd year of inter-galactic travel. Currently, space scientists are attempting to send messages from the earth, summarising life on the planet in one sentence. What would you write? The ability to do that is an act of-re-membering, putting together the pieces. Those who have lived on earth and do so no longer form an integral part of that picture. They have formed and shaped us in many and often unseen ways. The other current happening which calls for re-membrance, putting together the whole picture, is of course the refugee and migrant crisis. As I try to do this myself, the image which come to my mind is the lifeless body of little aylan Kurdi lying on a Turkish beach. As we re-member him, so we re-member all those who are fleeing war, poverty, and persecution- all of it made by us, the human race. The UNHCR currently estimates that around 59 million people globally have been uprooted by war, violence, persecution, poverty, and the effects of climate change. This year, it has been an important part of –remembering by our religious leaders to continue to point out this bigger picture to politicians. Pope Francis did this in his encyclical Laudato Si and his address to the UN, as did Patriarch Bartholomew and the Archbishop of Canterbury jointly in London last week. And our Christian faith gives us the ultimate context for our re-membering. Listen to these words from the Anglican-Orthodox dialogue, published last week with the title In the Image and Likeness of God: A Hope filled Anthropology, “To be fully human is to know, love, and delight in God and to share in God’s life as far as created beings may. Thus it is in praising and worshipping God that we discover who we are as human beings.” We become fully human, therefore, when we re-member. Bereavement is an integral part of this process of becoming fully human
And it is bereavement which connects the reality of those who die in armed conflict with the day-to-day reality of the death of those we love. Scripture reminds us “ in the midst of life, we are in death.” As we know, death can come peacefully at the end of a long life, or it may come painfully, suddenly, violently and senselessly. This makes the pain of bereavement even sharper, and actually if we are honest it never goes away. Time we know is a great healer, and memories fade, but the reality of human bereavement is one which the Christian faith has always taken seriously and acknowledged. The orthodox Christian belief in the continuation of life after death, gives it another perspective, but it doesn't actually take away the experience of pain and loss. It is not for nothing that the Litany of our Church prays for deliverance from “ violence, murder, and dying unprepared.” All of us pray for the grace to prepare properly for our deaths, and it is part of the privilege and duty of the priest to accompany people in this, their final journey. So we bring before God our own experience of bereavement and we offer it to the wider perspective of the healing love of Jesus Christ. Later on in this service, there will be an opportunity to light a candle in memory of loved ones, and place it symbolically on the cross. The cross, as more candles are lit, becomes then a cross of light.
This is the perspective which we bring to this service of remembrance today, which brings me to the second word, anamnesis. Christian remembering is rooted in what is called in Greek anamnesis. Anamnesis is very different from memory, and nostalgia is totally alien to it. Anamnesis is at the heart of Christian and Eucharistic theology. In anamnesis, the thing remembered becomes dynamically present to the here and now, as linear time falls away. We do not simply remember Jesus Christ as a historical figure, but Jesus Christ in this Eucharistic theology of anamnesis becomes dynamically present now in the Eucharistic assembly, you and me, and in the bread and the wine. This is fantastically freeing, and it is the perspective which we bring to all our experience of bereavement and memory as we commemorate those who die in war, and all the faithful who have gone before us. We are set free to enjoy, in this sense, heavenly communion. Again, the symbol for this is the cross in light. You will no doubt remember that it was the Emperor Constantine who saw the cross in light as a pointer to his new life in Christ. The Cross in light was accompanied by the Latin words In hoc signo vinces – “ By this sign conquer”. You will find this cross in light with the same motto on the kneelers of this church. The cross in light is symbolically at the root of our prayer.
So allow the liturgy of today to do its own work. Restrained liturgical words and symbols will do a far more effective work than hundreds of words of any preacher. I was reminded of this recently when a suddenly bereaved person said to me “ I don’t want you to say anything. I just want you to be here.” So today on this Remembrance Sunday, we hold in the silent love of God those who die for their country in war, together with all those we have loved and see no longer. There is a tombstone, which proclaims, “ Where you are, I once was. Where I am, you will be.” This reminds us that our destinies are bound together through the loving embrace of God in Jesus Christ. For it is Jesus Christ who has gone before all of us, which enables us to pray in the words of the Russian Kontakion the Dead which we will sing later, “ and weeping o’er the grave, we make our song. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.”