Sermon for High Mass – Second Sunday before Advent Sunday 13 November 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Remembrance Sunday 2016
Malachi 4.2 …the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings
Our time of Remembrance was in silence. To be silent in God’s presence is itself a prayer. Silence is only possible when the guns have stopped. The wars in Syria and elsewhere today show us the folly of taking sides right now; we might have our opinions; today’s a day for putting them aside. Our only response can be silent tears. What we cannot do is stand back and say this has nothing to do with us. The silence is not empty.
You have probably had enough of the First World War centenary commemorations, even though we are only half way through them. That’s what war does, of course, exhausts us, drains us of compassion and feeling, reduces our humanity. Back in 1916 the American poet, Alan Seeger wrote:
I have a rendezvous with death
At some disputed barricade.
He was killed on the 4th of July 1916, a few days into the Battle of the Somme. The Battle of the Somme went on until November 1916, a hundred years ago, and the casualties on all sides topped a million. It was in 1916 that conscription began in England, so many of those who died had had no choice over their rendezvous with death. The suffering didn’t stop when the guns stopped. Many of those who returned home had been gassed, there were 35,000 shell shocked, and many more maimed. They had been to the gates of hell. They didn’t talk about it. A very unusual phenomenon began to appear on London streets. People started to put out little shrines. The first one appeared in Hackney in August 1916. They were very simple, maybe one shelf, two vases of flowers, either side of a slate or piece of wood on which were chalked the names of those in the street who had gone to the war: the living as well as the dead, because this was not an expression of sorrow only, but of pride in those who had done their bit. Queen Mary went to the East End to have a look for herself. And so memorials have become an important feature of any Remembrance liturgy. Most of those who died in that war were buried in foreign fields. A shrine was the only memorial in the absence of a grave.
You might be wondering where our memorial is. This church used to have a choir school, and many of those who sang in this choir were killed in the First World War. So we have a sort of school war memorial, put up by the Duke of Newcastle in memory of his chorister friends. It is the silver tower of a pyx, or “sacrament house” which you see hanging above the altar, and in there is the little tabernacle containing a consecrated wafer, the Body of Christ, and for those of you interested in engineering, there is a winch at the right hand side of the altar which lowers the tabernacle from the fixed silver sacrament house to the altar itself. This is a dedicated war memorial. I know it seems a little strange, like so much that goes on here, and like so many of the people who come here, but let’s think a little deeper about this. Our memorial has been placed where those choristers sang. It surrounds and guards closely what they would have been taught to venerate as the most sacred experience of the church, closeness to the sacrament itself, the Real Presence of Christ in our lives and in the world. Their sacrifice is connected to Christ’s sacrifice of Himself, a life given for others. We would not be here today if our lives had not in some way been touched by that Real Presence of God in our lives, that call to sacrifice, our way to eternal life. In the Holy Communion we meet Christ here in the form of bread and wine. In our work, in our lives, in the bombed-out hospitals in Syria, at the gates of Hell at the Battle of the Somme and in the many conflicts which followed, in the long lines of those victims of war we remember today, we find Christ in the form of flesh and blood, bodies that are broken, lives that are lost. It is the same Christ.
Among the young men killed at the Somme was 2nd Lieutenant Harold Linklater Colville, Somerset Light Infantry. As a boy he sang in our choir. He was fatally wounded on the first day of the battle and died on 6 July 1916 in hospital at Rouen, where he is buried. He was 22. There’s a small plaque in the sanctuary floor bearing his name and those of his chorister friends, such as John Francis Ladell, Lieutenant, Middlesex Regiment, same age, 22, who died in the same battle two weeks later on 20 July 1916. We shall remember them.
At his Last Supper Jesus said, This is My Body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. Do this out of love for me. Do this so I am part of you today, so that you can live with my life. We enter this silence of remembrance every time we attend communion. We learn then, from the way God does things, opening up His life for us to share it, to make space in our lives for others, including those who are forever silent, and including our enemies. There is no other way. The silence after the Last Post seems so final at the going down of the sun. Their sacrifice seems so pointless, so cruel, so terrifying, so heartbreaking. But in the morning, we can remember them. The more we remember, the more we can love, and so the greater their victory. For our Remembrance is nothing less than God’s compassion, the first step to any reconciliation, the first sign of our hope that in the morning the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.