Death is the great leveller both in peacetime and in times of war,
In the first world war, when the mustard gas drifted over the trenches, death didn’t ask whether you were an officer or a private, a hero or a coward, whether you had a degree or left school at 14.
When the bombs fell on this country in world war two, the bombs didn’t care if you were a man woman or child, rich or poor.
In Iraq, the snipers in Basra didn’t care if you were black or white, whether you were religious, agnostic or an atheist.
In Helmand province in Afghanistan the IED that blows your legs off doesn’t ask if you are American or British or an Afghan child.
Remembrance of people that died in warfare is especially poignant because without exception all these deaths were premature.
The church of England in its role as the National church, takes its duty seriously, as acting as a spiritual framework in which all people, whatever their religion, class or colour can come together to mourn and remember those who whatever their differences in life are now all united in death.
What is an act of remembrance? Is it just merely remembering or does it go any deeper than that.
Well here I think Christianity has something to offer, some insight that may help.
Every week I stand at the altar and recite the words at the Holy Communion “Do this in remembrance of me”. The original word which translates into English as remembrance is in the original Greek actually much stronger. More than merely remembering the word actually means to make present. The act of remembrance implies bringing to mind something so very powerful that the person and the act itself are almost palpable. It is as if you can touch it, and indeed in the Communion we make that real by sharing bread and wine.
In the act of remembrance of the war dead it is an act that brings their sacrifices, their blood sweat and tears, their bravery and fear so close to the forefront of our minds that we can almost taste it and feel it.
But why do that at all. What’s the point? The point, both in the Communion service and in this act of remembrance is the hope that this very act should change us or move us in some way, perhaps to make us more aware of the frailty of humanity, make us determined to try and emulate all that was good in their actions and sacrifice, to allow their tragedy to teach us something vital about the sanctity of life, about bravery, about loss, about waste, about love and hate, about duty and responsibility, about war and the causes of war. Perhaps also to make us consider questions concerning the meaning and purpose of life itself. It could lead us to question our politics and the way we approach geo-political problems. These are all positive things, but..
On the negative side, our very natural regrets could also trigger bitterness and recrimination and re-kindle old enmities and rivalries. The Christian insight here though is that in indulging that side of things only ultimately harms ourselves and poisons our own minds and makes future deaths in future wars even more likely. Forgiveness and acceptance is the key to countering these negative thoughts.
Remembrance is more than a simple act of remembering, it is an action that can potentially move the heart, to move a person from one place to another, better, place.
Finally, let’s address that great largely unspoken question that hangs over all deaths – where are they now? Here we speak of mystery and see only through a glass darkly as St. Paul said. But the spiritual intuition is that nothing that is good is every really lost and in a Christian sense “nothing, neither death nor life can separate us from the love of God”.
But for both believer and non believer, one certain way that they can live on is if some or all of the positive qualities that they lived and died for; a sense of duty, responsibility, sacrifice, bravery, the courage of their convictions were actually to be embodied in the lives of each one of us, if in fact we were moved to change by the act of remembrance, the world would automatically be a much better place than it was before and in a very tangible way they would be living on; their example embedded in our lives.