The Revd Margaret Legg
The Remembrance Season reaches its climax with the ceremonies today and next Tuesday – Armistice Day, particularly important this year as we mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.
How important it is to remember well. To remember well is to reflect on the valour of the many who died so we might live; it is to give thanks for the freedom we enjoy because of the sacrifice of many; it is to treasure the peace we have experienced on these shores since the Second World War and it is to spark us to work for the continuation of peace: in our lives, in our country and in the world.
This year, an art installation by the artists Paul Cummins and Tom Piper and a film starringBrad Pitt help us, I suggest, to remember well.
The Poppies at the Tower of London have captured the popular imagination. Called ‘Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red’, lines written on the will of a soldier from Derbyshire, who died in Flanders, it comprises888,246 ceramic poppies planted in the Tower's moat, one for each British and Colonial fatality in the First World War. This is what a lost generation looks like.
Not everyone agrees. ‘Fake, trite and inward looking’ was the complaint of Jonathan Jones in The Guardian recently. The moat should be full of bones and barbed wire’, he wrote. ‘There is a fake nobility about the beauty of the scene and that is a lie, because war is not noble.’
The lie, I suggest, is in his take. I’ve visited twice and each time the atmosphere has been charged with a quiet reverence and respect. The fragility of the poppy for me recalls the fragility of life and the fragility of peace; it is a focus for our memories: even a youngster like myself remembers the sepia photographs of my grandmother’s two brothers, in their uniforms, which hung in her dining room – the great uncles I never knew.
The installation has, as Robert Hardman wrote in the Mail yesterday, ‘reconnected us with a generation we never knew and given us a new arena for national thanksgiving’.
It helps us to remember well.
So, I suggest, does Brad Pitt’s new release, the film ‘Fury’.
Some would argue that films like this, set in the 2nd world war, do not help us to remember well. Many people who go watch with ease, eating their popcorn and slurping their coca cola, its horrors no more immediate than the Battle of Waterloo or the Crimean War.
Yet Brad Pitt allowed his 13 year old son to watch it and then used it to teach him about the reality of war. He said that they talked about it intensely. “The younger generation play a lot of video games and I want them to understand that there are casualties. You don't press reboot. There are real consequences and real stakes.”
And Ken Tout, a sprightly 90 year old, emerged from his seaside bungalow in Littlehampton to remember what he was doing 70 years ago – fighting the Nazis from a Sherman tank, just like Brad Pitt in the film. After the war ended he devoted his life to peace. Among many other activities he worked on earthquake and flood relief, wrote 10 books, some about his wartime experiences, and was awarded an OBE for services to the elderly.
Today’s Gospel reminds us of the importance of being ready to meet Christ. Like the bridegroom in the parable Jesus tells, we never know when he will come, but we do know that at the end we shall all encounter him. Only half the bridesmaids were ready to meet him, and of course it begs the question, how ready are we? At this time of remembrance, we may think of Christ coming requiring of us the light of peace; looking to see to what extentwe, like Ken Tout, have been forces for peace: within our families, our neighbourhood, at work and at home; to know whether we are fit to sit at the banquet with the Prince of Peace.
Jonathan Jones writes that the moat at the Tower of London should be filled with barbed wire and bones; he might also say that we should have on the altar not snow white linen and flickering candles, but whips, swords and nails.
That is to miss the point. A Eucharist is a Thanksgiving.
We are giving thanks at this Service for the hope we have, through Christ’s life, death and resurrection, of eternal life. The laying of the altar reminds us of the innocence and purity of Christ.
We do remember at this Eucharist the realities of false hope, betrayal, broken bodies and communities.
We begin by saying sorry – for the human frailty that leads us to rush to sort out disagreements by annihilating one another, for the way that religion is still used as a scapegoat for violence, for nationalism, for eradicating minorities. For neither World War 1 nor 2 were the wars to end all wars. War continues.
The holiest part of the Service, where at one time all would have knelt, bowed their heads and crossed themselves, is during the Eucharistic Prayer, when the words of institution are spoken: ‘this is my body, this is my blood’. It is here we remember that Christ spoke these on the very night that he was betrayed, while he himself was remembering the Israelites flight from Egypt, heralded by the Passover of the angel of death. And Christ’s words are a command “Do this in remembrance of me.” Our central command as Christians is to remember the death and resurrection of a man who gave his life for others.
As the crowds walk around the poppy installation and fill the cinemas and as we gather around this altar, we remember and we remember well: that goodness is stronger than evil, light stronger than darkness, that sacrificial love and commitment are ultimately stronger than death. We remember that through Christ, we have the hope of eternal life and the faith that at the end of time all the dead, past, present and future, will be called to meet the bridegroom, the Christ. How ready will be?