A Sermon for Wilfred Owen
‘As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”’ (Mark 13.1-2)
As we gather a week on from Remembrance Sunday, as the poppy wreathes begin to weather and decay, and as this nation sits in the shadow of near-impossible decisions about its future relationships with our closest neighbours and the wider world, it might seem curious for me to stand before you and talk of the Great War poet, Wilfred Owen. It is tempting to adopt another line and make some half-baked analogy between the Temple being torn down and the bewildering state of our politics.
Rather I want to invite us into a richer ground and wider space by considering the intersections between Christ’s prophetic words and Owen’s performance of poetic brilliance. I want to invite us to consider how Christ and Owen offer resources to negotiate, survive and thrive in the no-man’s land of our bodies, lives, and our souls in a troublous world; in a world of precariousness and limit. I want to reflect on how the Word enables us to find holy ground in precariousness; how, indeed, it is only in the precarious, the fragile, the limited, that holiness is known at all.
‘Look, teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’. The Temple in Jerusalem, like all grand structures – Cathedrals, Cenotaphs, the vast memorials to the dead found in Flanders and Picardy – produced totalising effects. Such constructs say to us – ‘you, O child of flesh, are as nothing to the timelessness of power, and of empire and stone and monument. You, O little one, shall be overwhelmed and you must orientate yourself about us.’ When we are faced with monolith it can be so hard to resist … and yet … the wise know that in the midst of solidity is fragility; in the moment of strength is the wound that can fell an Achilles or Samson and has done countless times …
And the lesson of Europe’s brutal twentieth century gives the lie to all thinking that says, ‘This will always last … this is for all time … time has no meaning here.’ The myth of stasis, if it were ever believable, was shattered in the trauma of the trenches; it was shattered in that terrible blitz-night of November 1940 when hundreds of years of Coventry’s enacted memory was torn apart in hours.
And, yet, our ethical and cultural memory is so labile. How readily and easily we forget our fragility. We say, it could not happen here now; we are better. Meanwhile, millions of people around the world from the Yemen to Afghanistan to Central Africa to Syria know and have known – in their very flesh – the fragility of bodies. In recent years, in cities like Manchester and London, terrorism has shattered complacent assumptions about our polity. Like Wilfred Owen, we might ask, ‘Was it for this the clay grew tall?’ We – as Britten so skilfully does in his setting of Owen’s words in the War Requiem – cry out from the wounds we inflict on creation.
When Christ reminds us that the vanities of human permanence will be thrown down, he takes us to the strangest place of hope: he suggests the salvation and reconciliation of God is not to be found in our icons of safety and stability, in fixed totems, but ultimately in the wisdom and fragility of bodies … specifically, the body of Christ. God offers his very self through clay and blood in the grubbiness of life.
Our God dares to be human and is disturbingly ‘this worldly’. It is only in close attention to this that we have any hope of finding our ways out of violence. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is one utterly caught up in this world – caught up in love and delight and also in exposing its violence. Jesus becomes the object of our violence, and yet is faithful to the demands of love. In his death and injuring, his pain and death, he knows the deafness of miracles. He shall not be saved, no angels shall sweep down, and yet he maintains his love.
He is the victim who transforms his fate into destiny and exposes our violence, accepts his annihilation and yet does not demand revenge. The walls of the Temple fall and a body remains, and all it offers in the Garden of Resurrection is reconciliation. It says to us, ‘O clay grown tall, come live anew with me in a different way. Come, commit to a Way of going on which rejects silencing, objectification and injuring. Know your violence and be born from above.’
Church historian Alan Wilkinson has claimed that ‘God speaks to the Church through the world, as well as to the world through the Church’; further, that in the extremis of the Great War, ‘that Word emerged more authentically from the poetry of Wilfred Owen than it did in the sermons of its bishops.’ Indeed, it has been claimed that ‘Clergymen dressed Jesus in khaki and had him firing machine-guns’ (Eksteins, 1989). As Owen himself acknowledged in one of his many letters from the Front Line, ‘For 14 hours yesterday I was at work – teaching Christ to lift his cross by numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he thirsts until after the last halt; I attended his Supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet to see that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb and stands to attention before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha’ (Stallworthy, 1994).
If the Christian God is as ‘this-worldly’, as material, as I’ve claimed, is it surprising he is found wherever bodies are under trauma, even – especially – in the death of our totems of faith, stability and glory? The vanities of glorious humanity are exposed as Christ goes over the top and falls on barbed wire. And, yet, he would not be elsewhere. He will go into hell and harrow it, whatever that hell might be. Jon Stallworthy, one of our finest interpreters of the poems of war reminds us – in classical, rather than Christian terms – ‘Orpheus, the pagan saint of poets, went through hell and came back singing. In twentieth-century mythology, the singer wears a steel helmet and makes his descent ‘down some profound dull tunnel’ in the stinking mud of the Western Front. For most readers of English poetry, the face under the helmet is that of Wilfred Owen.’ (Stallworthy, 1994).
What is the song that Owen comes back singing? In another of his letters, Owen says, “there is a point where prayer is indistinguishable from blasphemy. There is also a point where blasphemy is indistinguishable from prayer”. Owen’s poetic-song is one where the sacred and profane meet and embrace. This embrace is often a wordless cry.
Owen writes the pity of war and indicates a God who is no stranger to an ironic world where violence masquerades as love and in which the Divine Comedy must be lived as tragedy. It is a home fit not for heroes, but for Christ, and, indeed, for us as we seek to live in him. It is one where reconciliation is not cheap and easy, but only found through death, cost, and resurrection; through a divine and precarious Body thrown down by us and raised by God. A body in which we are all called to find a home.
Modris Eksteins, 1989, The Rites of Spring. (London: Anchor Doubleday).
Jon Stallworthy, 1994, Wilfrid Owen: The War Poems. (London: Chatto and Windus).
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