The Bishop of Fulham looks ahead to Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, with their particular resonance in this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War
When I was a schoolboy, it was seriously questioned whether Remembrance Sunday would survive. It was often argued that the machinery of the laying of wreaths at the Cenotaph and the parade of veterans should be abandoned; that the rituals of Remembrance Sunday kept us tied to the past, and trapped in an outmoded view of the world. It was said that the ceremonies meant nothing to the young, and that they glorified war.
Honouring their memory
Few, I think, argue this way today. How glad we should be of this. It was Henry Chadwick who remarked that nothing is so much to be pitied as a church which has lost its memory. What is true of the church is equally true of a nation. We do not remember where we have come from, we will not know who we are. Remembrance Sunday says something vital about our sense of identity, our sense of mutual belonging. We do not live in a kind of perpetual Year Zero; we are bound together with our forebears and with our children, including those yet unborn. Our obligation to honour the memory of those who have gone before us, especially those whose lives have been drastically foreshortened in war, is all of a piece with our obligation to preserve for future generations the kind of society which has been nurtured in these islands over many generations, and which we have received on trust: one which is indivisible from its Christian origins and culture, however obscured those origins and that culture appear for so much of the time.
Few things speak so eloquently of that Christian character, that Christian ethos, than the institution of the monarchy, and the part played by the monarch in the national Act of Remembrance. The monarch is both the source of all authority and God’s servant first. How wisely we speak of the Forces of the Crown, reminding us that our soldiers, sailors and airmen can never be the playthings of mere politicians. Instead, that phrase insists that there is something sacred about committing forces to combat: that to send men and women into battle is so terrible a thing to do, that we only dare do it at all with that humility which comes from knowing that all our actions stand under the judgment of God, who is both justice and mercy.
Looking beyond war
Christian Remembrance is nothing without Christian hope: hope in the Word-made-Flesh, hope that neither death nor life…nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. It is the gift and virtue of Hope, properly understood, which preserves our commemorations in Remembrance-tide from mawkishness and sentimentality. If our Christian faith cannot and must not disguise or evade the awfulness of war, and the atrocities to which it gives birth, then our Christian hope can look beyond it, to that Kingdom where the Son of Man reigns in glory, whose birth-pangs can be felt even in this present age, and which, we are promised, will belong to all those whose faith endures to the end. It is this hope which alone can begin to make sense of the mystery of suffering: the suffering of the dead of the trenches, or of the family of the young soldier blown to smithereens by the land-mine, or the victims of the terrorist or suicide bomber.
The Christian faith puts suffering, innocent suffering, at the heart of its hope for the redemption of the world.
The suffering of Christ is unique, for in his suffering, God himself suffers in the human nature which he took upon himself at his Incarnation. Yet we must also say that in all who suffer, the suffering yet glorious Christ is present too, hiding the wounded in the deep shelter of his own wounds.
And the dead? The holy souls in purgatory, among them the countless dead in war, are no less present to Christ. He accompanies them on their final journey, into the fullness of the vision and presence of God. At the altar, where remembrance and suffering and hope all meet in the commemorative sacrifice of Calvary, we plead Christ’s saving death and resurrection for them, as for the living. This is the greatest act of piety and charity we can perform. We are called to express our love for all the holy souls, not least the fallen in war, by means of our unfailing prayers for them. In so doing, we help not only them, but ourselves also. As St Thomas More wrote in 1529, in the voice of one of those departed souls longing for heaven speaking to the faithful still on earth,
For as he that lighteth another candle hath never the less light himself, and he that bloweth the fire for another to warm him cloth warm himself also therewith, so surely, good friends, that good that ye send hither before you both greatly refresheth us, and yet is wholly reserved here for you with our prayers added thereto for your further advantage;
Let us pray this Remembrance-tide: Lord Jesus, by thy merciful kindness, and by the power of thy holy Cross, grant the faithful departed a speedy entry into the Sabbath rest of heaven.