Lest We Forget?
On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, one hundred and two years ago, the guns across the Western Front fell silent, largely bringing an end to a war which had cost millions of lives, devastated countless others and changed the map of Europe and the Middle East beyond recognition, whilst the peace treaty which followed the Armistice laid the seeds for an even more terrible war a generation later.
There is now no one left alive who recalls the horrors of the first ‘modern’ war and those who fought in the second are now vanishingly few. Even those whose parents went off to fight in it are amongst the more elderly members of our society. The increasing vandalism of war memorials is, perhaps, a sign that as the last of those who recall the wars depart, those whose own memories of war are confined to video-game like television news reports from far-away countries feel that our military heritage is something of which to be ashamed, which has no place in our modern, often egocentric Britain. Certainly, society has changed beyond all recognition in the last century, and not always for the better!
Of course, overly-simplistic accounts of the wars need to be avoided and perhaps rectified. A simple ‘My country, right or wrong’, approach needs to be challenged – especially from a Christian standpoint and there does need to be a realistic reappraisal of the motivations our nation had for going to war. This is especially true of World War I, which was in no real sense about fighting for ‘freedom’ for anyone and was more about preserving Britain’s hegemony on the European and world stage than about anything else – and making sure that our Empire remained robust.
That having been said, we must also recognize that, especially as regards World War II, so many people gave their lives to prevent Europe being dominated by the dark wickedness lying at the heart of Nazi ideology and by the cruel rapaciousness of its eastern ally. People did lay down their lives for the freedom to live without being subjugated to a political ideology which tolerated no dissent. It is salutary to think that many of those who are most hostile to our traditions of Remembrance now are actually horrifyingly close to reflecting the values of those who would have stamped out the freedoms for which so many of our fellow Britons made the ultimate sacrifice!
It is right and proper that we remember their sacrifice, although that does not preclude a critical awareness that, as people of their own age, in general they saw no great difficulty in reconciling freedom for our nation with its imperial status, in which many millions were subjugated to British rule! No generation is perfect, not least because human nature is fallen and we all therefore fall short of the glory of God – even our socially aware ‘woke’ generation!
The act of ‘remembering’ though, has to be about more than merely calling to mind long-dead people who died in wars fought for reasons now largely forgotten and misunderstood. If it is not, Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day risk becoming increasingly irrelevant and those who died seen not as individuals but as part of an amorphous mass which once lived and died but who now can be forgotten – just as those who fought and died for their country in, say, the War of Jenkin’s Ear, have been forgotten – but whose lives were every bit as important and precious as were those who died in, for instance, Normandy, Flanders, Korea or the Falklands!
As Christians, we have a huge contribution to make to any understanding of ‘remembrance’ as it is central to our faith.
At the heart of the lived expression of Christianity are not vague feelings or acts of random kindness, important as these may be, but the sacramental participation in Christ’s death and self-offering to God as the all-sufficient sacrifice which alone is capable of taking away the entire sin of the world. We are enabled to join in this through the celebration of the Mass. Yet the Mass is not a mere commemoration of a past event. When Jesus commanded us to ‘do this in remembrance of me’, he was requiring us to do something else entirely. The Greek word used by the New Testament for ‘remembrance’ here is ‘anamnesis’, which has the force of not merely drawing into our memories what the Lord has done for us, but actively making present these saving events, so that we may participate in them, though separated from them by millennia. Through the Spirit, we are as much involved in them as were the very first disciples in that upper room. Moreover, we are actually lifted up into a participation in God’s Kingdom, where time itself is transcended and we are one together with all those faithful who have gone before us and those yet to be born, for to God all times are the same.
Although remembrance in the sense of our remembering our war dead is not strictly the same – the dead remain dead to us – nevertheless we can ‘make present’ those we remember, so that they are ‘alive’ to us and thus their sacrifice is made all the more real. Photographs of the dead can be particularly useful and poignant in this regard. I am reminded of some of the lyrics of the popular song The Green Fields of France, which address a fallen soldier:
And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined?
And though you died back in 1916
To that loyal heart you're forever nineteen
Or are you a stranger without even a name?
Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane
In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame
Increasingly, our war dead (pace the fact that small wars are still being fought) are indeed reduced to being perhaps nameless individuals in old photos. Yet photos have their uses. I often look at such photos and wonder about the men and women they were – what their lives were like, what their hopes and fears and worries were. It makes them more real, more alive, than ever only a name on a memorial can. It helps make them ‘remembered’, although I never knew them in this world. – though I may in the world to come!
So, when we pause to remember our war dead today, let us try not to think of them as an anonymous mass of dead and largely forgotten people who once lived, but as real individuals, as real as we are, who are as alive as we are, for God is God of the living and the dead and he holds all of us in his eternal memory. And, as you remember them, pray for them – that their sins may be forgiven and that they continue their journey to our common destination – the fulness of life in God’s eternal Kingdom.