Church of England Diocese of Southwell & Nottingham Ordsall and Retford Saint Michael

Homily for Sunday 14th November 2021 - Remembrance Sunday

A reflection on Poems from the Great War, for Remembrance Sunday

By Deacon David Bean.

In Flanders Fields (John McCrae)

In Flanders' fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders' fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high,
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders' Fields.

We often turn to verse, or song, or poetry, when we have a need to express strong emotion, don't we? Perhaps at this time of year we are forcibly reminded of that, because so much of our Remembrance Day imagery, so many of our Remembrance Day traditions, we owe to the poets of the Great War - Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sasson, Rupert Brooke, and others.

The poem I have just read, by John McCrae, has had a lasting impact. In likening the fallen solders to poppies, it has given us our lasting emblem for Remembrance for all those who have fallen in conflict, then and since. A poem, like many others, of suffering and of pity. But where was God in all of this?

In the valley of the shadow of death that was the Great War, soldiers and civilians across Europe found comfort in assuring themselves that God was on their side, like a great celestial Field Marshall. But the soldiers in the trenches opposing were told the same thing.

As the conflict continued, the casualty mounted and the suffering continued, this image could not be sustained. But for some, a new image of God emerged... This is Lucy Whitmell's poem, from 1915:-

Christ in Flanders

We had forgotten You, or very nearly —

You did not seem to touch us very nearly —

Of course we thought about You now and then;

Especially in any time of trouble —

We knew that You were good in time of trouble —

But we are very ordinary men.


And there were always other things to think of —

There’s lots of things a man has got to think of —
His work, his home, his pleasure, and his wife;
And so we only thought of You on Sunday —
Sometimes, perhaps, not even on a Sunday —
Because there’s always lots to fill one’s life.

And, all the while, in street or lane or byway —
In country lane, in city street, or byway —
You walked among us, and we did not see.
Your feet were bleeding as You walked our pavements —
How did we miss Your footprints on our pavements? —
Can there be other folk as blind as we?

Now we remember; over here in Flanders —

(It isn't strange to think of You in Flanders) —

This hideous warfare seems to make things clear.

We never thought about You much in England —

But now that we are far away from England,

We have no doubts, we know that You are here.


You helped us pass the jest along the trenches —
Where, in cold blood, we waited in the trenches —
You touched its ribaldry and made it fine.
You stood beside us in our pain and weakness —
We're glad to think You understand our weakness —
Somehow it seems to help us not to whine.


We think about You kneeling in the Garden —
Ah! God! the agony of that dread Garden —
We know You prayed for us upon the cross.
If anything could make us glad to bear it —
’Twould be the knowledge that You willed to bear it —
Pain — death — the uttermost of human loss.

Though we forgot You — You will not forget us —
We feel so sure that You will not forget us —
But stay with us until this dream is past.
And so we ask for courage, strength, and pardon —
Especially, I think, we ask for pardon —
And that You'll stand beside us to the last.

(By Lucy Whitmell)

Sentimental? Perhaps, yet deeply comforting.

Christ the comforter of the men in the trenches ….

Christ the comrade, a sharer in trench life...

Christ the God who suffered for us, who knows what suffering is, who suffers with us.

I don't know about you, but that image of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with Us – through everything, sustains me today.

Two years after the poem was first published, the Spectator published another poem, apparently written by an anonymous soldier, entitled “To the Writer of ‘Christ in Flanders:’”

On the battlefields of Flanders men have blessed you in their pain:

For you told us Who was with us, and your words were not in vain.

All you said was very gentle, but we felt you knew our ways;

And we tried to find the Footprints we had missed in other days.

When we found Those blood-stained Footsteps, we have followed to the End;

For we know that only Death can show the features of our Friend.

In the Mansions of the Master, He will make the meaning plain

Of the battlefields of Flanders, of the Crucifix of Pain.

Prayer.

O God of truth and justice,
we hold before you those men and women
who have died in active service.
As we honour their courage and cherish their memory,
may we put our faith in your future;
for you are the source of life and hope,
now and for ever.
Amen