Church of England Diocese in Europe

Sermon in Ankara for Remembrance Sunday (8th November 2020) - The Revd Patrick Irwin

The red poppies that are worn in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, other Commonwealth countries and also the Ukraine to mark Remembrancetide derive from the poppies that flower across the Western Front in Flanders. These flowers inspired the then Major John Macrae, a Canadian Army surgeon, to write a poem that seemed to sum up so much about the War. Macrae had just buried a close friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, a Methodist whom in the absence of the Chaplain this Presbyterian layman had buried with the prayers of the Anglican Prayer Book Funeral Service recited from memory. That evening Macrae wrote the poem In Flanders Fields, looking out at his friend’s grave and the poppies springing up around the memorial crosses.

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.

This poem was read by the American teacher Moina Michael, who was to start a campaign to promote the Flanders poppy as a symbol of Remembrance. So the Remembrance tradition of the poppy, still flourishing around the world, goes back to two individuals, a poet mourning his friend and a reader receiving inspiration.

I remember visiting John Macrae’s grave in Belgium. As I stood in prayer beside his grave in the peace of a Commonwealth War Cemetery the silence was suddenly broken by the sound of hundreds of marching troops. As they approached they were singing “It’s a long war to Tipperary”. These were real voices, not some recording, and in that place it was rather surprising. The soldiers turned out to be units of the Belgian Army who were carrying out as an exercise a march along the World War One front line and singing World War One marching songs as they went.

The soldiers paused for refreshment near the cemetery and I went over to speak to them. They were very hospitable and the British Army recruits with me were most impressed that I had apparently produced coffee and waffles out of thin air, but the abiding memory for me was of a column of young soldiers approaching me and singing as they advanced. Just so were once the young men in the graves I had been visiting. They too had sung and eaten and drunk and loved and feared. Like us they had lived, but then they had died. They died for us.

On Remembrance Sunday we remember with gratitude and sorrow those who have died in the service of their country. We remember those who died in both World Wars and in many more recent conflicts. May these brave men and women who have died on our behalf now rest in peace.

Remembrance is a two-sided coin. One side is Memory and the other side is Dedication. We remember those who have died on our behalf, those whom we knew personally and those whose stories we have heard, and we rededicate ourselves as individuals and communities to work for the future that those we remember will never see. As the Kohima Epitaph we heard read reminds us,

When you go home tell them of us and say,

for your tomorrow we gave our today.

One-sided coins are useless. To rededicate ourselves without remembering would be to lose the context of reality in which we make our pledge, a world in which much is asked and much has been given. To remember without rededicating ourselves would be to cheapen the memory of the fallen and to give to those whom we remember much less than they deserve.

The poem In Flanders Fields links these two aspects. We are reminded of the dead, all too human, and also challenged to take up the torch, as participants in a relay race take on responsibility for their lap of the course. In 1915 the challenge was to continue the War with Germany, Austro-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, and today we may rejoice that former enemies are now firm friends, and former enemies now friends face the challenges of the future together. We know that our world is a dangerous and unsettled place, perturbed by war and natural disaster, pandemic and financial crisis. Yet it is our world, and we are alive to work to improve it, unlike the many who gave their lives on our behalf.

Our Remembrance, memory and dedication, we Christians lay at the feet of God. God the Father has shown his love for us by sending his Son Jesus, whose death on the Cross, that perfect sacrifice, comes to the mind of Christians whenever we see the cross used as a symbol of remembrance or a decoration for valour. We may be sure that God understands the aspirations and the agony of those whom we commemorate this day, and the mixed emotions with which we do so. There are many connections, of age or nationality or interests, that may link us with those whom we remember today, not an unending torrent of names but a collection of individuals, each one dear to friends and family circle, yet most of all there is the connection that Christians share in Christ. Living or dead we are inseparably linked to one another through God. As Paul proclaimed to the Christian believers in Rome, “nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

As citizens we make common cause in Remembrance, in memory and in rededication, with those of other faiths or none, and as citizens we value equally the sacrifice of all those who have died on our behalf, but as Christians we dare to claim that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. This love of Christ fills the metal of our coin of Remembrance, warming memory and enriching rededication. So today on this Remembrance Sunday we remember those who have died for their country and pray that they may rest in peace, and rededicate ourselves to work in the world they will not know.