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KEEP US FAITHFUL IN SERVING YOU (TODAY’S COLLECT)
There is one common experience that unites all normal people in the British Isles today: sad memory. Scarcely a family in these lands was untouched by the shocking experience of four years of massacre on what is called The Western Front. Many of us here will have driven through those areas of Belgium and Northern France where the vast (and tiny) carefully cultivated cemeteries contain the bodies of the countless combatants who died in that dreadful war. Add to that the slaughter of the Second World War and the millions of innocent civilians affected, then the sorrow is almost unbearable.
The Church and War
There is much written and no full agreement on the causes of the First World War. Christians must surely ask how it was possible for believers brought up on the Sermon on the Mount not to have found another way to solve their problems. In the first centuries Christians would not even serve in the army. During the Second World War –as in the First- some Christians not only rejected conscription that would involve killing, but paid with their lives for their stance, like the Austrian Catholic Franz Jaegerstaetter. Fifty million died in the second world war, and one would have thought that the statistics in the First World war could not have been worsened in which twenty million died. At the Battle of the Somme which lasted between July 1st and Nov 13 1916, on the first day alone, the British casualties were 60,000. By mid November the allies had advanced five miles at a cost of 450,000 German, 200,000 French and 420,000 British lives. Of the Vimy Ridge battle in northern France- (April 12th 1917),the Canadian Corps suffered 10,602 casualties: 3,598 killed and 7,004 wounded. One recalls that when war was declared in the autumn of 1914 the streets were packed with cheering people in London and Paris and Berlin- we will have won and the boys will be home for Christmas-nationalism was at its height everywhere. The causes of the First World war may be disputed but the Second World War seemed to be necessary as a defence of everything that is important in life….one can see the necessity for an ethical code for deciding on what a just war is, and what is and is not legitimate in undertaking it.
Today especially, collectively, we remember with gratitude those who gave their lives that we might live in freedom, that freedom so necessary for the common good. The Canadians are remembered by Rudyard Kipling who had lost his own son Jack early on in the war:
“From little towns in a far land we came,
To save our honour and a world aflame,
By little towns in a far land we sleep;
And trust that world we won for you to keep.”
We recall other sad and beautiful poetry in a similar vein, like Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier on the fated Dardanelles expedition, in which so many Australians and New Zealanders died:
“If I should die think only this of me”- thinking of the far corner of a foreign field that would contain that “ a richer dust…whom England bore,
Shaped, made aware,
Gave once her flowers to love, her ways to roam”.
Or the lines of the Quaker Laurence Binyon, who lived just up the road from here in Merlewood:
“They shall grow not old as we who are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
Hope born of grief is expressed in the lines of Maurice Baring on the death of Julian Grenfell:
“Because of you we will be glad and gay,
Remembering you we will be brave and strong”.
As Christians today we come back to Our Lord: “Nobody takes my life from me: I lay it down of my own accord” (Jn 10:18). “I came that you may have life and have it more abundantly” (Jn 10:10). But to save one’s life one must lose it (Jn 12:25). ”God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that all who believed in him might have eternal life” (3:16). Writing to the Philippians St. Paul illustrates what all this looks like in practice: “Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think of these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil 3:8-9). This was Paul in prison, a prison from which he would never emerge, because he too would die a martyr in Rome.
We may wonder if people today wearing poppies know why specifically it is poppies that are being worn. The First War was only in its relatively early stages (1915) when John McCrae wrote that poem
“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.”
In our time the crosses are being replaced with something less identifiably Christian. Requiescant in pace (RIP) will identify the Christian graves in the public cemetery. ‘May they rest in peace’ is a lovely prayer. And let that prayer be on our lips today as we recall all the dead whose sacrifice has made our lives possible. Nor can we be indifferent to those ‘on the other side’ whose lives were taken from them too. A chaplain in the First World War wrote home: “Oh, if you could see our wards, tents, huts, crammed with terrible wounds…in strict confidence, please, I got hold of some morphia… creep into the long tents where two or three hundred Germans lie, you can imagine what attention they get with our own neglected, the cries and the groans are too much to withstand and I cannot feel less pity for them than for our own (The Rev. John M.S. Walker, in The Faber Book of Reportage, edited by John Carey,1987, p.464). We recite together in the Lord’s Prayer later in our Mass. ‘As we forgive those who trespass against us’. The sentiment goes with the suffering. We shall remember them. Amen.
Rev Richard J. Taylor
Spiritual Advisor MCI
Boarbank Hall, Cumbria , UK