This Sunday marks the 100 years since the end of the ‘Great War’ – Remembrance Day. The 11th of November. A day etched into our nation’s shared ‘religious calendar’ – a sacred day up there with Anzac Day in the national story, and a reminder of the sacrifice our forebears have made for the life we now enjoy.
At the 11th hour, on the 11th day, of the 11th month, we pause to remember the ‘armistice agreement’ – the laying down of weapons and the pursuit of peace. We often mark this day with the poppies; the flowers that sprung up as signs of new life on the battlefields that claimed millions of lives over a four-year war. What does this day teach us?
What do these sacred days reveal about who we are? How do they shape us?
They remind us that for life to flourish, for poppies to grow, for the world to be a safer place for our kids, we need peace.
They remind us of the all too present reality of war in the world – that we can’t claim that fundamentally, humans are good, but that as a Russian writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who lived in a Gulag during the second ‘Great War’ puts it, the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart. We have this capacity to do monstrous things.
They remind us, alongside the ongoing presence of war in our world, that these lessons have not yet been learned, that the sacrifices of those soldiers killed in such wars have not been enough to alter our hearts.
Are these days a comfort in the face of death? Do they stop us turning to conflict, or war, rather than peace? What does remembering really do for us in a world that has forgotten some other key truths?
The reason we mark Remembrance Day with poppies is that poet Moina Michael wrote a poem We Shall Keep the Faith in November 1918, around the time of the armistice. Her poem was a response to another poem written during the war, In Flanders Fields, by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae.
Both these poems reveal something about what we’ve lost from our collective memories in our modern remembering, and so from what these events teach us.
McCrae’s poem reflects on the fields of death, of sacrifice marked by crosses, that he witnessed as a soldier, and the cost of the sacrifice of those who died… it’s a call to remember. To keep the faith. To ensure the sacrifice is not in vain.
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.
Moina Michael wrote her poem in response; a promise not to forget. A promise to keep the faith.
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honour of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
The poppy marks a commitment to remember. To hold on to the lessons learned. To ensure these soldiers did not die in vain, but that they secured new life, a life bought with blood and courage.
We have not remembered. Not really. We certainly remember the sacrifice of our soldiers, and are thankful for it… but that there was a second great war is at least a sort of proof that this sentiment did not translate, that the lessons still need teaching. That our hearts still need fixing.
But these poems also reveal something lost in our public psyche; in our shared story. The hope of resurrection – of a different sort of new life. The idea that these soldiers sleep, to rise anew. The idea that death is not the end of the story. The idea that to ‘keep the faith’ is not simply about remembering the sacrifice of the fallen soldier; but to remember the sacrifice of Jesus.
This Sunday as people around our nation pause to remember the sacrifice of our fallen soldiers, we’ll be, as a church also remembering red blood poured out to give new life; our own keeping the faith. We’ll give thanks for the peace we enjoy as a nation, that was hard won, but at the same time we will give thanks that God worked to bring peace with us, to transform our hearts, through the sacrifice of Jesus on a cross. We’ll partake in the Lord’s Supper – the meal of bread and wine (we’ll use grape juice) that Christians have been holding out, and holding on to, since the armistice Jesus won for us in humanity’s war with God.
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you…” – Luke 21:19-20
After he said these words Jesus went on to die on a cross; a sacrifice offered, in our place, to bring us peace with God, and new life. New life that includes new hearts – where instead of good and evil contending within us, God offers his spirit and the example of Jesus to transform us so that we have ‘new hearts’…
We humans are profoundly shaped by stories… by memories… by sacred moments where we pause to remember who we are, how we got here, and where we are going. To remember something is to keep the faith. To hang on. To become part of the story. This Sunday we’ll remember that we enjoy temporary peace in this world because of the sacrifice of those soldiers who’ve gone before; but we’ll also remember that we enjoy eternal, heart-changing, peace with God because of the sacrifice of Jesus.
Will you join us in this remembering?