Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 9 November 2014
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
In my school chapel there was a Latin inscription along the communion rail, words from this evening’s second lesson, ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ The chapel like many war memorial chapels, had first been planned in 1924, in the aftermath of WW1, and had finally been built in 1957, by which time a much larger number of former pupils had died in another world war.
As a teenager I used to find this appropriation of scripture to the war dead questionable. The two world wars formed a substantial part of our history curriculum: war did not seem a particularly glorious or noble affair, and linking it with the core of Christianity in this way seemed dubious. I still don’t think it is glorious or noble, but I now understand a little better why it may be right to appropriate this passage of scripture to Remembrance Sunday.
We now use the word ‘remembrance’, mostly, in just two contexts: of this day, Remembrance Sunday, and at Mass: ‘do this in remembrance of me’. I think that is significant.
The Mass enacts offering and sacrifice. Jesus gave us this offering of bread and wine to replace the old sacrifices of the Jewish temple, sacrifices which involved killing animals in place of people. Jesus promised that, in making this offering of bread and wine and sharing in communion, we are joined to his perfect sacrificial offering of himself on the cross which rewrote the sacrificial code. ‘Remembrance’ is the word we use to distinguish this from just ‘remembering’: remembering being about something past and gone but ‘remembrance’ being something done to keep the memory live, reflecting the particular Greek word it translates, anamnesis. I’ve come to see that as true about Remembrance Sunday as well.
I grew up in the sixties in a country heavily involved in the Vietnam War. My earliest memories of radio and TV news are of long reports about casualties and deaths in places with strange names, in a war to which young Australian men were conscripted by balloting their birthdays. It was not a popular war; perhaps in that respect it had a lot in common with more recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. It wasn’t obvious why our soldiers were in Vietnam. In WW2, where there was a threat to Australia from Japanese forces, there was an obvious case for our involvement, but there was also a long tradition of questioning our WW1 involvement, especially after the Gallipoli debacle.
There was a further price to pay for those who served in Vietnam. It was bad enough that the families of those who died were not always sure that their sons’ sacrifice was valued. But what was worse, those who returned home badly wounded, disabled or permanently traumatized, were at best ignored. You may remember something similar happening in the UK for a while during the second Iraq war.
That is unjust. Clearly, however we may feel about the politics of particular wars, we are right to give thanks for those who have given their lives, and right also to hold in present remembrance those who have lost a good deal of what their lives might have been, especially those who face years of disability and mental suffering.
We bring all this to church today as participants in two traditions. One tradition, the celebration of this Sunday (which began after the First World War) famously aided the Anglo-Catholic project in igniting widespread support for prayer for the dead. This commemoration was begun as a warning against further conflicts. But, trite though it may be to observe this, a century after that war to end all wars we still see members of our armed forces on active service overseas, some of whom will die or return home severely disabled. Especially in this centenary year, we must honour the real people, exactly as Fr Julian reminded us this morning. Masses of ceramic poppies may be arresting and popular art: I hope they will also move people to seek peace and care for the victims of war.
However, the best reason for us to mark this anniversary in church is that much older tradition, the very heart of Christianity which it has co-opted: the remembrance of what Jesus did for us, once and perfectly, in which we participate when offering and receiving the Eucharist (and also when receiving the Lord’s blessing in Benediction). All self-offering and sacrifice, however imperfect, fearful or unwilling, participates in that perfect and unselfish offering of Jesus on the cross, and deserves our remembrance, because it too is done on our behalf.
Remembrance, when it is not just about nationalism, when it focuses on love and sacrifice, is an image of what God did and does to forgive and renew us all if we come faithfully to receive it from him.
Jesus died on the cross, having been horribly tortured. He cares about every one of those men and women who suffer in war and their sacrifice is, at its best, like his. But there’s always a difference. They haven’t chosen to die or be wounded; they have done it because we have required it of them. That means we have a great responsibility to them: to the dead, to pray for them and to do better at making and keeping peace; to the living, to care for them and never to forget them.
Remembrance is part of resurrection faith: it is about life.