A question: Are there any 9 year olds here this morning? A flashback: A couple of weeks ago, I was in a school for Syrian refugee children on the Syrian border run by one of our partner churches in Lebanon. There I met a nine year old boy in a wheelchair paralysed from the waist down by a chemical gas attack on his school. He told me his story of being gassed, and as he told me I had the most vivid flashback I ever experienced in my life. My grandfather was gassed too – in the trenches of the First World War. Invalided out, he was to spend the next 60 years of his life in a wheelchair, paralysed from the waist down. As I listened to the nine-year-old Syrian boy, my flashback took me to myself at nine years old listening to my grandfather telling his story of being gassed, shortly before he died. My flashback also made me realise with a start that it was European civilisation and culture which exported world wars, the arms industry, and chemical weapons – used for the first-time in the Fist World War. Why tell this story? Because the personal brings alive the historical. Every single name on these memorials here is a person known to and loved by God and isn’t simply a number or statistic. And while we have no longer any surviving combatants from that war, my only little story illustrates the personal connections of millions to that conflict. And if you come from most of the countries of the Middle East, as many in this church do, you automatically are formed and shaped by the First World War, because your map and probably your country, was created out of its ashes. Why is it important to remember these things, as we do today, and what does our faith have to offer as an insight?
First, Why is it important to remember? This year, this month, this day, we mark 100 years since the Armistice of 1918 which brought the First World War to an end. On the macro level, the conflict changed and shaped the world and we still live with its consequences. On the micro level, millions of families were to live with the reality of loss, injury, and death in the most appalling circumstances- I gave one little example from my own family. It is in this way that the macro connects to the micro, through the personal, through you and me. The poppy, which is used as the symbol of Remembrance, can illustrate this for us. We owe the use of this symbol to the Canadian doctor John McCrae. In the spring of 1915, shortly after losing a friend in Ypres, McCrae was inspired by the sight of poppies growing in battle-scarred fields to write 'In Flanders Fields'. We heard this poem read in this church on Thursday, as our current exhibition of poppies was launched. I quote from it “To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high,
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders' Fields.” The poem reminds us of one essential reason to remember - “That those who cannot remember are doomed to repeat.” The First World War, of course, was billed as the war to end wars, but of course it was not and armed conflict has continued from then up until today, for both combatants and non-combatants. John Mc Crae’s poem reminds us that it is now you and me who carry the torch which the dead of the First World War passed to us, and as the school report says, “Could do better.” That’s a compelling reason to remember. 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 form our 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 and growing, as any visit to the National Arboretum in Staffordshire shows. So today, we remember all serving personnel in the armed forces who have died following the line of duty.
The second and equally important reason to remember is our Christian faith. 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. 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 all our prayer and all our remembering.
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.”