The Archdeacon for the Army on military chaplaincy and St John’s Gospel
The concept of remembrance is essentially sacramental; and the very word “remembrance” is present in the Lord’s command to His Church in the words of consecration at the Eucharist. To remember someone is to make them present in an act of selfless faithfulness and generous love: an act of mind, will, and spirit. Reflecting on the work of military chaplaincy, I take the Fourth Gospel as a working metaphor for the ministry of pastoral care of soldiers and for the work of remembrance. There are three conversations from the Gospel which strike me as offering profound meditation around the relationship of the priest to the soldier.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11.21;32) Both Martha and Mary say this to Jesus, and it moves Him deeply. Perhaps it is the straightforward trustfulness of their faith, or perhaps it is their sheer sorrow. I recognise both of these responses from soldiers with whom I have served. It has always struck me just how hard soldiers take the death of a friend, and how they seek to articulate it within an awareness of God. That is why the Army maintains a system of pastoral care based on a chaplain’s intimate relationship to every battalion or regiment. “Lord, if you had been here…”. The presence of a priest means that the Lord is indeed there, and that is how soldiers understand it. It is then the work of the Church to articulate this further, and to enable the glory of God to speak through prayer and liturgy in order to bring comfort. Later, we are told that Mary anoints Jesus with perfume, foretelling the day of His own burial. The one who raised Lazarus will Himself die, and the identification of the divine with the human is complete. So the priestly task of the chaplain must be to identify fully with the deeply human work of the soldier, and to bring out of it something that speaks of the Resurrection. What is spoken will be heard, and what is offered will be accepted with thankfulness.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20.25) Soldiers see everything that happens around them, with a highly cultivated gift of observation and situational awareness. It makes them very discerning, even demanding, judges of character. They are less ready to believe what they do not see. To seek proof is reasonable, and it is Thomas who does so: Thomas, who should have been there in the first place; Thomas, the twin who perhaps caused trouble as a boy by pretending to be his brother; the prosaic and practical Thomas who is the soldier who has so often asked me how I can believe in something that I do not see. But Thomas is more than this, as we know from earlier encounters with him in the Fourth Gospel: it was he who wanted to accompany the Lord to Bethany, even to death, and it was he who later asked about the way, and the truth, and the life. Thomas is also the courageous adventure-seeker, utterly loyal to the leader who inspires him. The Lord teaches us a lesson in leadership as He honours Thomas’s request for proof, rather than dismissing it. It is then Thomas, his own faith confirmed, who has the plain-speaking courage to articulate the faith of the Church: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20.28) We are told that Thomas is the Twin, and indeed that is the meaning of his name, but almost uniquely in the Gospels the relationship is not specified. Whose twin is he? He is a twin in search of his own kindred, and he finds it in Christ. The rest of his life will be devoted to conforming more and more to that likeness, until he is indeed the identical twin of the Lord in the life of the Kingdom. He is the model for the soldiers whom I have known, who from a troubled background and in a confusing world seek their identity in belonging and serving and following, and who will give everything, absolutely everything, for that greater sake.
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” (John 21.17) Not everyone would agree with this translation, but, no matter how we phrase it, it is the most incandescent of all the conversations in John’s Gospel. It is about a friendship restored, forgiveness imparted, and a blessing given, in the form of a task that is both service and leadership: “Feed my sheep.” This takes us back to Chapter 10, to the reminder that the sheep are Christ’s own. With this in mind, we see the astonishing trust that the Lord places in Peter. If we accept that there is deliberate distinction between the two Greek words for “love” that are used in this dialogue, a further dimension emerges as the Lord accepts at the third time of asking the lesser love that Simon Peter is prepared to promise. In every way, this is a meditation on remembrance: remembering past failures and forgiving them, remembering the disciple’s love for the teacher and actualising it in service, and a remembrance of relationship that calibrates itself again in love and in self-giving. This is the essence of Remembrance Sunday, as it is the essence of the Eucharistic sacrifice. We step out of a linear concept of time into the continuous-present time of God: in heart, and mind, and soul. God accepts what we offer, as He accepts the imperfect love of Simon Peter, and the questioning faith of Thomas, and the profoundly natural sorrow of Martha and Mary.
For anyone involved in pastoral care, these moments of the Fourth Gospel are foundational. They are lessons in comforting the grieving, in encouraging the waverer, in restoring the penitent. As I look over my ministry to soldiers, I can think of hundreds – literally hundreds: mostly young men, but women also – who belong in these categories. I have known many soldiers who have grieved for a friend killed in action, but also many who have grieved over a family bereavement in the distant past, or over a personal loss. I have known many who have wanted to believe and who have wavered at the edge. There have been a number who have seriously sought restoration of relationship, or liberation from guilt. To deal with these issues is not straightforward, and it requires great understanding and openness. To listen, to be generous with time, to weep with those who weep, to reach out to the doubter, to encourage those weighed down by sorrow and a sense of personal worthlessness: these are wonderful gifts of God which form the human reality of loving remembrance. Behind the two minutes of silence lies every aspect of human experience and every human quality from the most noble to the most unworthy; and the Gospel teaches us that we are to despise none of it, but rather to embrace it with the love of Christ Himself.
The Ven. Peter Eagles CF has been Archdeacon for the Army since 2011