This is an act of remembrance. “Remembrance” in the Christian tradition means far more than a simple recollection of past historical events - it means to make those events present to us by immersing ourselves in those events and the people and their experiences in order that they may have an impact on us today – to move us, to challenge us, to affect us emotionally and to inform and change us.
An act of remembrance such as today involves engaging with the events that took place around a hundred years ago and make them present in our hearts for a purpose.
That is a tall order, because the magnitude of those events is so huge. Trying to connect fully with the pain, suffering and sacrifice, the fear and the loss, broken bodies and broken hearts is a huge task.
And that is before we also engage with the heroism, nobility, self-sacrifice and bravery. All those are huge concepts and they can only really be engaged with when they become personal.
When all those names carved into cold stone on that war memorial have flesh put on them and they become real people with real and remarkable tales to tell. An awful lot of work has gone into the task of investigating the real lives of all those names on our war memorial and eventually I trust that all that research will soon provide a permanent exhibition of their lives here in St. Mary’s.
In a personal trip to France this Summer we visited the grave of a relative of my wife, a certain Corporal Thomas Brook who died aged 21 on 12th September 1916. His grave had as far as we know never been visited by a member of the family in all these years so it felt like a very special moment laying flowers on his grave in a beautiful little Commonwealth war cemetery near Albert on the Somme.
As we did so I couldn’t but help remember those famous words “A corner of a foreign field that is forever England.”
Standing amongst those rows and rows of tombstones is a haunting experience – an immersiion in the enormity of it all – much like the display of poppies at the Tower of London – and is deeply affecting
Where does this act of remembrance lead us I wonder?
It leads some to pacifism. I respect their decision but the Christian church has never gone down that path. To use what might sound like an old fashioned term to many, humanity is sinful, we know that evil exists – evil people with evil motives and so regrettably but inevitably there will be wars and there will be occasions when it will be necessary to fight to defend ourselves, our civilisation and protect all that we hold dear.
I believe the maxim -All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. When evil raises its head it must be confronted. And when we do - that is when we turn to the brave, heroic, sacrificial service of the men and women in our armed forces.
What our remembrance tells me is that when we ask our young men and women to risk their lives on our behalf we must be sure that the cause is just, and that our reasons for going to war are not trivial or governed by vanity and that all reasonable attempts to avert war have been taken, and if despite all those precautions we are taken into war we go regardless we go with heavy hearts but with heads held high, well trained, motivated and well equipped for the fight.
We have to go with our eyes wide open and will be saddened but not be surprised at the death and destruction that will inevitably result. Our remembrance if it tells us nothing else tells us there is no such thing as a clean war without loss and heartache. They are inevitable.
Waste of young life, Grief, hatred and recrimination will all be there. We know that. But so will honour, nobility and bravery and mercy.
And let us not entertain for a moment the notion that this nation of ours is not worth fighting for. Our nation, our people, freedom, democracy and culture is worth defending, worth fighting for and ultimately worth dying for.
This act of remembrance should bring us face to face with the reality of war and its consequences. We should allow the reality of the sacrifice of all those names read out outside to affect us. We know that war is brutal and costly. But we also know that their backbone and resolve, their bravery and sacrifices made by countless men and women to confront the evils that we face in this dangerous world is something to be proud of and seek to emulate.