REMEMBRANCE/ALL SOULS 2017
In October this year, together with much of the UK, we observed black history month by holding some inspirational workshops for different schools here in the Church. The workshops, through interactive presentations, told the story of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the role of William Wilberforce, and hisconnections with this organ. As you know, in the course of restoring and relocating it, our archival research showed the connections betweenthisorgan, then in Clapham, and William Wilberforce. We developed the narrative that the hymn Amazing Grace, written by a former slaver, was probably first heard on this organ. So we feel proud to have our own connection with this important event in world history. Black history month is an opportunity for voices which might not normally be heard to be voiced out, and in doing so, remembered. This leads me to what we are doing today. Remembering. But we do it in a uniquely Christian way. Why do I say that? Because Christian remembering takes the past and renews it in the present. Christian remembering is therefore not passive but active. The Greek word anamnesis describes this. Anamnesis is the Christian context of renewing the legacy of the past by recalling it in the loving embrace of God, present in the here and now. Let me be more specific.
Thomas Jefferson, one of the five drafters of the Constitution of the United States of America, wrote this in 1774 “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time” And it was this, of course, which went on to be enshrined in the Constitution of 1776 in these words “ We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Thomas Jefferson, when he wrote these words, owned more than 100 slaves, considerably less than the then Archbishop of Canterbury, who owned more than 10,000. Recalling our shameful past is painful for everyone involved – either our shameful collective history or shameful bits of our own past. But the doing of it is also healing. That applies to today also, which formspart of what is called healing of memories. Healing the wounds of the past, not by forgetting them, but by holding them in the loving embrace of God in the here and now. And today, this commemoration has two aspects. We remember those who die for this country in war, and simultaneously we recall our own loved ones whom we see no longer. All this is part of what makes us who we now are, both as a nation and as individuals.
First of all the national. Since the end of the Second World War, this Sunday, Remembrance Sunday (the closest to Armistice Day, November 11th) has been the day on which we commemorate as a nation all those who have died in the service of their country, especially in our armed forces. In terms of our national identity, there is something of a national conversation at the moment about what it is to be British. Our evolving national story is of course set in the much larger room of our place within the worldwide community of nations. Politically at the moment, there are many different voices claiming to be able to assist us in developing our place within the community of nations, and great care needs to be taken that we remain an outward looking community embracing those who offer their skills and lives here, from wherever they have come and however long they have been here. So whatever our national identity is and will be, we remember all those who have helped to formour national consciousness by having their lives taken from them in War, be that First or Second World Wars, or any of the ongoing conflicts since then – the list is long an growing, as any visit to the national arboretum in Staffordshire shows. So today, we commemorate all serving personnel in the armed forces who have died following the line of duty. We honour their memory and offer sympathy and support to their families. This act of worship, then is a place of both pain and hope. In other words, a place of bereavement.
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. 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 own 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. As I said at the beginning, Christian remembering is rooted in what is called anamnesis. Anamnesis is very different from memory, and nostalgia is totally alien to it. 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, through the action of the Holy Spirit. 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. It was the Emperor Constantine who saw the cross in light before the battle of Milvian Bridge in the year 312 as a pointer to his new life in Christ and later baptism. The Cross in light in Constantine’s vision 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 therefore symbolically at the root of our prayer.
So allow the liturgy of today to do its own work. 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 all our destinies are bound together as we race towards the grave, held in 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.”