A Sermon preached on the Sunday before Remembrance Day, November 5, 2017 at St. Dunstan’s, Gordon Head, Victoria BC
These are the three overlapping themes of Remembrance Day; but the greatest of these is grief.
Grief was the first and primary purpose.
Soon after the ending of the Great War, beginning in 1919, people gathered to mark the end of the war, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month. From Canada some 620,000 men and women went forward, a remarkable number from a population of 8 million – 7%, or one out of every fifteen people in Canada. Some 250,000 of those 620,000 were wounded, and 67,000 were killed.
There were celebrations in 1918, of course. Crowds gathered in public squares and called back and forth, “Who won the war?” “We won the war!” The satirical song, “Lloyd George knew my father, Father knew Lloyd George” was also sung in tribute to the British Prime Minister.
But in the years following these gatherings were not so much celebrations of victory than the remembrance of the great cost of victory. The peace treaties had just been signed, and already they were being called into question by public intellectuals, such as John Maynard Keynes. Civil War continued in the former Russian Empire, the Soviets and Polish were fighting over territory, Turkey and Greece were fighting over boundaries and peoples, and there was turmoil in Germany. While there was peace in the British Empire, the USA, and France, it took another few years before the world settled down. While the legacy of the war was being debated, one thing was not in doubt: the cost in human life.
On November 11, 1920, the centre of the Empire experienced an extraordinary event. The remains of a British soldier were exhumed from the battlefields of France and transported to London for a full state funeral, with the King as the primary mourner. The unidentidfied soldier was buried with full military honours in a prominent place in the west end of the nave of Westminster Abbey. As the funeral procession from Victoria Station passed by Whitehall the King unveiled a cenotaph, a new word in 1920 which meant “empty tomb”, a gravestone to stand for all who the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who had died in the defense of the Empire.
After the funeral, conducted according to the Book of Common Prayer’s “The Burial of the Dead”, the body was laid to rest directly in front of the entrance at the west end of the nave of Westminster Abbey. A stone of black Belgian marble was placed over the grave, and although flush with the floor it remains the only grave in the Abbey over which it is forbidden to walk. The inscription reads:
Beneath this stone rests the body
Of a British warrior
Unknown by name or rank
Brought from France to lie among
The most illustrious of the land
And buried here on Armistice Day
11 Nov: 1920, in the presence of
His Majesty King George V
His Ministers of State
The Chiefs of his forces
And a vast concourse of the nation
Thus are commemorated the many
Multitudes who during the Great
War of 1914 – 1918 gave the most that
Man can give life itself
For King and country
For loved ones home and empire
For the sacred cause of justice and
The freedom of the world
They buried him among the kings because he
Had done good toward God and toward
Around the main inscription are four New Testament quotations:
The Lord knoweth them that are his (top; 2 Timothy 2:19)
Unknown and yet well known, dying and behold we live (side; 2 Corinthians 6:9)
Greater love hath no man than this (side; John 15:13)
In Christ shall all be made alive (base; 1 Corinthians 15:22)
Not long after the Great War memorial halls being built across Canada, such as the one down by the Cathedral. Likewise, cenotaphs were erected in the centres of every city, town, and village. Since those early post-war years hundreds and thousands have shown up to services that are chiefly about remembering the dead.
Our Remembrance Day services, then, are somber echoes of funerals from the past. They are times for the consolations of religion, and not for the celebration.
And of course we in the church know how to do grief. It was a good and natural thing for us to be part of these ceremonies. It is also around that time that Anglican churches began to bend a little, and allow prayers for the dead. Up until then it was not considered good protestant practice and theology to pray for the dead – after all, as reformed and evangelical Christians (in the Reformation sense of those words) our prayers would avail nothing of the dead. However, so great was the grief across the country that as a pastoral practice, and maybe because of a little Anglo-Catholic influence, such prayers now became a bit more common. Readings from the Apocrypha began to be used:
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.
Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good,
because God tested them and found them worthy of himself;
like gold in the furnace he tried them,
and like a sacrificial burnt-offering he accepted them.
In the time of their visitation they will shine forth,
and will run like sparks through the stubble.
They will govern nations and rule over peoples,
and the Lord will reign over them for ever.
Calls for Peace
But, of course, the War to End War, as H.G. Wells called it idealistically in 1914, was anything but. The First World War and the peace that followed saw the rise of fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany, each with ideologies glorifying war and racism. The Second World War called forth Canada, now an independent Dominion, to enlist over 1.1 million soldiers, sailors, flyers, and others. 44,000 lost their lives. Although there has not been any war on a similar scale, we answered the call of the United Nations for the Korean War, with 26,000 participating, of whom 516 died. More recently over 40,000 personnel of the Canadian Armed Forces served in Afghanistan, and of them 159 were killed, along with six civilians.
Because we live in a world where war still happens, because we live in a time when nuclear weapons have the capacity of wiping out the world’s population, many people in the generations since the Great War have used Remembrance Day as an opportunity to re-dedicate ourselves to peace and peacemaking.
Again, this is right and proper. As Christians we should have a very wary attitude towards war. Whereas conquest by war was considered a normal part of the ancient world and international law up until a hundred years ago, early Christians looked upon war as something which non-Christians did – you could not be a soldier and a Christian at the same time. St. Martin of Tours, the patron saint of soldiers and a man after whom many military chapels were named, himself renounced war when he became a Christian. The emperor Constantine was baptised only on his deathbed even though he had become a Christian several decades earlier, as he believed that his baptism would be compromised by the military role of an Emperor – only at death’s door could he give himself wholly over to a Christian life. St. Augustine in the early 5th century worked out the theory of just war, which essentially argued that the only just war is a defensive one, and that it is only acceptable if all other avenues of resolving the conflict have been exhausted. This Just Theory continues to be deeply influential in military science and international law.
That said, things changed. Byzantine emperors and kings in western Europe had no problem combining Christianity and military force in a way that would have startled the early Christians. Perhaps the worst example of this were the Crusades, which sought to liberate Jerusalem, but resulted in the massacre of tens of thousands and in petty squabbles over territory and tribute.
Most devout Christians were horrified by the massacres of the 20th century. In the UK, France, and Germany the decline in church attendance before the Great War only accelerated, as people wondered how supposedly faithful Christians could go to war with each other. In the middle of the Second World War George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester in the 1940s, made himself very unpopular by calling into question the morality of the fire-bombing of German civilians. In the post-war era many Christians followed the Anabaptist path and became pacifists. In the 1960s many Christians joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and protested against the Vietnam War. Between the Korean War and the Afghanistan War many Canadian Christians lauded Canada’s military and leadership in peace-keeping.
At the same time Canada received many immigrants and refugees from places that had been torn apart by war and conflict: the displaced peoples of the Second World War from all across Europe; then, in the 1950s and 1960s, Hungarians and Czechs; in the early 1970s Asian-Africans driven from Uganda, where their ancestors had settled generations before; Vietnamese; persecuted peoples from Central and South America, from Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Somalia, and more recently, from Syria and Iraq. Christians have played the major role in welcoming these peoples, and helping them move through the trauma of war to becoming ordinary Canadians. For many, as the memory of total war receded and veterans passed away, the relevance of these other conflicts underlined the emphasis on peace and peace-keeping.
A Nationalistic Celebration?
In reaction to what many perceived as the marginalization of the Canadian Armed Forces and a growing disconnection from our military history, many in recent years have sought to re-centre Remembrance Day in that past, to create a national identity for Canada. Vimy Ridge began to be discussed as the place where Canada became a nation, even though there are any number of other battles or campaigns that are far less well known where the same point could be made – Hill 70, Passchendaele, the Hundred Days.
Many people are uncomfortable with this, preferring to keep these nationalistic aspects to a minimum. Unlike our neighbours to the south, we do not have a supposedly common civil religion around a flag and a constitution. Instead we are a remarkable mix of societies resistant to any melting pot: indigenous, Francophones; Anglophones, Newfoundlanders, African-Canadians descended from slaves, and more recently, people from all the nations on earth. Debates over national identity are settled by stating that we are post-national and multicultural. Yes, we have a constitution, a flag, a citizenship, a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but we also have a lot of unfinished business.
Knowing all this, perhaps Remembrance Day does have a role for Christians in Canada, to remind us to be engaged with our democratically chosen leaders, subjecting to examination their policies on foreign relations and the the role of the military.
That said, Remembrance Day remains fundamentally a time to grieve and remember the dead.
Grief. Peace. Nation. As Christians we can play a role in each of these ways to commemorate Remembrance Day.
- We can celebrate our nation, fully engaging with the democratically elected leaders and debating the meaning of history and the mission of our Canadian Armed Forces today, and, as Jesus did, call into question the motivations of our leaders.
- We can work for peace, recognizing that in our Lord and master Jesus Christ we have one who sought to overcome the violence of the Roman Empire with sacrificial love.
- And we can mourn the dead, even as they recede into history. We remember that we walk in the light of the resurrection, and that, however horrible their deaths, God is not yet done with them, or us.