Sunday, November 11, 2018

Remembrance Sunday

Psalm 46
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear.

Come and see what God has done,
the wonders wrought upon the earth.
God makes wars to cease in all the world,
God breaks the bow and snaps the spear,
and burns the shields in the fire.
Be still and know that I am God,
exalted among the nations, exalted in the earth.
The God of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

John 15
12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Obviously every town and village in England is unique, but Accrington deserves our attention today.

First, it’s the birthplace of Charles Edward Hoyle, the young man we honour today in our service of remembrance. It’s also the home of his nephew Jim, who received the letters that were so carefully preserved by the Canadian Virtual War Memorial.

But there are other things about Accrington that stand out: the town is famed for making the hardest and densest bricks in the world, used in the construction of the Empire State Building, and the foundation of the Blackpool Tower. In town, the Haworth Gallery holds Europe’s largest collection of Tiffany Glass. And there is one more thing the town is known for— the Accrington Pals.

The Pals were part of a unique strategy employed in the Great War, reportedly the brainchild of Lord Kitchener himself, that entire battalions would be made up by recruits from a single town—pals. The logic here was that young men would be more inclined to perform valiantly in the service of friends and neighbours.

It doesn’t take a lot of 20/20 hindsight to see what might go wrong. On July 1, 1916, just one day after the death of Charles Edward Hoyle, the Accrington Pals joined the Battle of the Somme near Serre, resulting in over 600 casualties in the first 30 minutes. At the same moment, maybe a mile away, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was virtually wiped out, a 90 percent casualty rate that was only surpassed by the West Yorkshire Regiment fighting some six miles south. It fell to a German officer to put all this in perspective: “Somme,” he said, “The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.”

The Somme joins a list of military disasters beginning all the way back at Cannae, to Antietam, and Gallipoli just a year earlier. History tends to turn on such battles, national identities are forged, lessons are (sometimes) learned, and the real cost of war becomes plain to see. We don’t celebrate the end of wars, we mark them: with solemnity, and humility, and a sense of awe at the sacrifice made.

“Greater love hath no man than this,” Jesus said, “that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

In all things, Jesus begins with the individual and human cost of where we find ourselves: giving calm in the midst of trouble, healing in the face of suffering and loss, a word that brings life when the world cannot. He gave his disciples the seemingly simple command “love one another,” and knew that only in the fullness of time would they come to understand what this means. This was not kindness or amity, but a love that remains costly and implausible.

The first sacrifice, of course, would be his own. The water was barely wine when we learn that the temple that will be destroyed in just three days is his body. That unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains but a single seed. The world will see me more no more, he says, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.

And this brings us back to the Somme, Vimy, Hill 70, and all the other names and places lodged in memory. It was Sir John Arkwright who managed to describe the journey across this ruined landscape, putting the individual and human cost in perspective:

Still stands His Cross from that dread hour to this,
Like some bright star above the dark abyss;
Still, through the veil, the Victor’s pitying eyes
Look down to bless our lesser Calvaries.

One hundred years on and there is a natural tendency to relegate these things to the pages of history. For many in our society, the Great War seems as distant as the War of 1812. The difference, of course, is the continuing presence of monuments and plaques, preserved and in some cases updated to include Afghanistan and dates from our century.

And these memorials, many designed and dedicated in the 1920s, broke with the past and the conventions of remembering victories in battle. Gone were the equestrian statues and their supposed symbolism, one leg raised for a wound received in battle, or the triumphal arch.

Instead, the memorial makers opted for a different direction, Lutyens Cenotaph in the centre of the street at Whitehall becoming the most emulated design. An arch or pedestalized rider became an empty tomb, the wreath of remembrance in stone, a place to remember the dead who were missing or far away.

The other difference is the listing of names, ten in this room, and dozens more in our Upper Room. Search long enough, and most public buildings from the first decades of the last century will have a list of names: employees, students, members, individual names that draw the eye, asking only that we pause and remember.

Within the church, of course, we have a unique role to play, both in remembering and putting human conflict into the context of our faith. And it’s not just for the aftermath: chaplains were found in trench and field, sharing words of comfort, often quoting verses such as the psalm we shared this morning:

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear.

God makes wars to cease in all the world,
God breaks the bow and snaps the spear,
and burns the shields in the fire.

Back home, these same words gave comfort and reminded worshippers that God’s desire was peace, and an end to the wars that begin in the human heart. For concord between the nations, and justice within the borders of the same.

One of the resources I fell upon this week was a copy of the service of thanksgiving, published by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, for use on Sunday, November 17, 1918. And while the hope of the moment remains only a hope, even a hundred years on, the words still speak:

“Grant that a just and merciful peace may repair the losses and heal the wounds of war: unite in the bond of brotherly charity those who have been at enmity; and continually guide the counsels of the nations, to the promotion of thy glory and the lasting welfare of [human]kind.”



Post a Comment

<< Home