Remembrance Sunday 2020 Good Shepherd
Born in 1922, the poet Philip Larkin had no personal memories of the First World War yet wrote a powerful poem about it. It is called 1914, but the title is printed in the Roman numerals that feature on so many war memorials – MCMXIV. The poem was published in 1964 when the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War was commemorated. Its theme is the enormous changes and the numerous personal tragedies that the war would bring – changes and tragedies of which the young men marching off to undergo military training and the crowds who cheered them were unaware. The final verse suggests that what they, their families and a whole civilisation were about to lose might be termed innocence.
“Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages, Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.”
It’s a poem which on this Remembrance Sunday has an extra resonance, for when this year began, we all had plans and hopes which were not to be realised and the news of an outbreak of a novel respiratory virus in Wuhan seemed distant, even irrelevant. Many are feeling a loss of innocence, a dislocation in their lives which is difficult, even impossible to digest. Many are mourning the loss of loved ones.
Remembrance is both vital and fraught with difficulty. It is vital because our ability to remember is not only an essential part of every person’s personality but also, in the form of shared memories, something that binds us together in community.
I had a powerful reminder of that twenty years ago when staying briefly in a village in north-western Russia in the house of an elderly woman, Alexandra Ivanovna. Her son-in-law took me to visit the local museum. In one of the upstairs rooms was a bookshelf with what looked like a set of encyclopaedias on it. He explained that these were the memorial volumes that had been produced in the Soviet era to commemorate the
millions who had died in the Second World War. There were many volumes, and I was taken aback when he told me that these were the memorial books for a single province. He pulled one of them down from the shelf and showed me that for each person commemorated, there was a paragraph about them, giving details of their military service. He pointed out the four paragraphs which commemorated the brothers of Alexandra Ivanovna and explained that she was the only sibling to survive the war. The books were a striking reminder of how the human desire to remember flourished even in a totalitarian state where the individual was subordinated to the collective, a state that was avowedly atheist. There are now similar volumes recording the victims of that state, the millions who died in Stalin’s labour camps. Remembrance is vital.
It is indeed a good and important thing to remember those who served and continue to serve in our armed forces and civil defence, those who never returned. It is also important to remember those who came home scarred in mind or body. Most war memorials commemorate the men and women who died in conflict, but I remember being shown one in a parish church in north Yorkshire where someone with the same surname as mine was listed. When I asked who he was and when he had been killed I was told that this war memorial listed all those from that parish who had served in the First World War, that he was an adopted member of the family with whom we had lost touch, and that he was a Church of Scotland minister. Years later I tried to find out more about this great uncle by adoption and discovered that he had been invalided out of the army for what we would now call psychiatric reasons. He went on to be ordained, to serve in a tough parish in the east end of Glasgow and, in 1939, to volunteer as a Chaplain to the Black Watch. Given his own suffering, that was a courageous thing to do and I think it very likely that he was all the more effective in that ministry because he remembered what he had been through. I regret that we never met, yet nevertheless I remember him. Remembrance is vital.
Remembrance is also fraught with difficulty, for it involves an acknowledgement of loss, the loss of innocence of which Larkin wrote, the loss of freedoms, above all the acute sense of loss that is bereavement. It is to that difficulty that today’s Gospel speaks in a very
profound way. It is, of course, the Benedictus – the prophecy spoken by Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, just after he had written down the name of his new-born son, a name which is deeply significant, for in Hebrew John means “God has been gracious”.
Zechariah had been struck dumb for doubting the words that the Angel Gabriel spoke to him concerning the birth of his son. His doubting was highly ironic, for the name Zechariah means “God remembers”. And when, after months of enforced silence, his tongue was loosened, he lived up to his name by speaking of God’s remembrance.
“...he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant”
That God remembers is a heartening reminder that though we have lost innocence, lost a familiar and comfortable reality, lost those closest to us, God remains faithful to us, committed to us. Zechariah’s prophecy goes on to remind us that light comes to us in our darkness and that there is a better way than conflict:
“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will
break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the
shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
So as we remember those who died in conflict or were broken by their experiences, we are reminded of the Remembrancer divine, the faithful God who shows us the way of peace; the God who promises and makes possible the re-membering that we call resurrection.