Sunday 11 November 2018: Remembrance Sunday – Armistice Day
Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 44:1,7-9; Ephesians 3:14b-19; Matthew 10:26b-31
By Christopher Burkett
Editor and Diocesan Director of Ministry, Chester
Context: a Remembrance Service; the building packed with people of all ages and from widely differing backgrounds
Aim: to reinforce a sense of purposefulness in remembering that finds its source in God’s grace
Have you had that experience of getting to the top of the stairs but not being able to remember why you went up them in the first place? It happens to me a lot, and in other ways too: like turning up at the wrong hospital for an appointment; calling Freda ‘Frances’ for an embarrassingly long number of days; and ill-temperedly searching for my specs when they were on the top of my head all the time! ‘Old codger,’ I hear you muttering under your breath.
But we all know that memory is fickle and often hard to maintain. In our Google age, the smart phone has become a memory substitute. Come on, admit it. Who here hasn’t been part of some conversation when you’ve googled the forgotten words of a song, what actor played who, or what the unremembered score was in some famous match? It’s no coincidence that our first reading links glorifying the heroes of the past with the mention of generations. Memory across generations is always problematic. Sometimes it’s flawed and even children and grandchildren can’t remember.
How much more so when the memory is stretched across four or five generations? We pause right now to remember the guns falling silent exactly one hundred years ago. We strive to recover what that meant to our forebears. The bells of peace peeled out. And we need imagination to recover what a relief that was.
‘Some of them have left behind a name,’ said that first reading. And naming was a way of dealing with the horrors of the war loss. Within a very few years every community in our land had a war memorial that named those who had been killed. Looking now at the huge versions, like those in the battlefields of Flanders, we quake at the enormity of the loss involved. Though sometimes it’s the small ones that really bring it home. The tiny village I come from had a population of around 700 at the start of hostilities; ninety-one of its men served and a quarter of them didn’t come back. Every one of those named on the church plaque well-known to my grandparents.
The stone memorial in the village street simply says, ‘Is it nothing to you: all ye that pass by?’ To my grandparents and their generation, it was most certainly something: names of those they knew and an assertion of the value of their lives. Yes, to them ‘every family’ did indeed takes its name from God and nothing was to be allowed to denigrate that. The suffering was immense and touched everyone – during my childhood there were still women who remained single because of a fiancé lost in the trenches.
The names cannot be ‘just names’, we strive to recover a sense of their personhood. In labouring, in loving, in learning, in living they were as we are. If you have a family connection to one of those names, then perhaps a faded photo or an old watch and chain will help make the connection. If not, then our own awareness of life’s profundities must do to help us assert the depth and value of each life named. Let us sing the praises of illustrious men not in any vainglorious way but as a valuing of their particular lives so tragically lost.
Less that a fortnight after the guns ceased, Lloyd George, then Prime Minister, said, ‘What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in. I am not using the word “heroes” in any spirit of boastfulness, but in the spirit of humble recognition of fact. I cannot think what these men have gone through. I have been there at the door of the furnace and witnessed it, but that is not being in it, and I saw them march into the furnace.’ (ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/)
‘Furnace’ was an apt description – it seemed that so many had been reduced to nothing more that fuel to a consuming fire that could never be controlled. Looking back, we may be tempted to consign our Armistice thoughts to the listing of horrors in a century full of horrors. True enough, but not good enough today. Today we shine a light in the darkness of what had happened and assert that not one of those lost fell unperceived by God. We name them personally because of the cruel fate that denied them their personhood. So much more valued than sparrows, despite the muddy circumstance that denied that.
Kate Luard was a nursing sister who served through the whole war. Awarded the Royal Red Cross and bar, she wrote home every day, and this is from one of her letters written in a front-line casualty station:
‘I feel dazed going round the rows of silent or groaning wrecks. Many die and their beds are filled instantly. One has got so used to their dying that it conveys no impression beyond a vague sense of medical failure. You forget entirely that they were once civilians, that they were alive and well yesterday, that they have wives and mothers and fathers and children; all you realise is that they are dead soldiers and that there are thousands of others.’ (Unknown Warriors,  J and C Stevens, The History Press)
But it ended. Armistice: we rejoice that at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month the guns were silenced. The furnace was finally extinguished, thank God. ‘Remember what you will – But remember.’
(James Murdoch Ewing)
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