The first thing to say is that Remembrance of the war dead and those affected by war is always intensely personal. We all have our own stories. My paternal granddad, known as “Little Granddad”, (because he was little!), fought all the way through the first world war. Because he was a country boy and used to looking after horses that was his job on the front lines in France.
My maternal granddad was captured at Dunkirk and spent five years in a POW camp, an experience that broke him and he died well before his time.
And one of the most poignant trips in the last couple of years was making a pilgrimage to visit the grave of Louise’s Great uncle, Thomas Brooke, killed on the Somme and buried in a Graveyard near Thiepval called “Blighty Valley”, made more moving by the fact that as far as we know we are the first people from his family to visit his grave ever.
These and a million other personal stories are the content of Remembrance
It is also important to understand that Remembrance Sunday is a secular national commemoration and not a Christian festival. But it is a secular commemoration which the Church of England as the National Church lends its fulsome support and frames every commemoration up and down the nation from the cenotaph downwards.
That being the case, I suppose the question for us to reflect upon is what does the Christian faith have to contribute in offering the spiritual framework to the day which recollects the sacrifice of so many people during war?
And just at that point we have our first offering – the notion of sacrifice. The Christian faith is built on the notion of sacrifice.
That a sacrifice, is not an empty gesture, or a simple waste, but has innate power is written in to the Christian faith. In the case of Christ, we have a blood sacrifice and the sacrifice of that one man resulted in the defeat of evil, and the gift of hope to millions.
Using this motif, no sacrifice could ever be futile or meaningless but imbued with import, and should be received with gratitude. Sacrifice has meaning and can achieve things.
Pacifism is a noble position but the Church of England is not a pacifist church. It recognises that we are part and parcel of this fallen sinful world, and while we certainly hope and work for a future world of peace, we acknowledge that while we are part of this fallen creation with a heavy heart sometimes the unthinkable becomes necessary.
Remembrance is itself a word that Christians use all the time. “do this in remembrance of me” said Jesus Christ. Remembrance in Greek (anamnesis) in the Bible is much stronger than just “remembering”. It means to “make present”. We “make present”, in order to enter into the pain and misery, and ultimately death of Jesus. Applying this to the remembrance of the fallen soldiers - When you really enter in to the pain, really feel it, so that it becomes a moment of transformation. We hope it may become a powerful way of stopping us rushing quite so fast into yet another war if we can avoid it.
Also on the question of an example and an inspiration to others Christ offers an insight. In the manner of Christ’s life, his morality, courage, selflessness and sense of justice, we have a life worth emulating. There is something to inspire us. So too in the countless stories of courage and heroism do we find stories, lives, to inspire us.
So both as a sacrifice and an inspiriation, the Christian faith can speak into the commemoration of the fallen.
Thirdly we inevitably then should ask the question no one else asks. “Where are they now?” In a culture that routinely poo-poos the notion of a post death existence, Christianity is clear that one is not only possible but can in fact be positively assured by faith in Christ.
And lastly perhaps the greatest asset that the Christian faith brings to Remembrance Sunday is hope for a future world of joy, love and peace; a hope that is never extinguished no matter how much it is shaken.
We possess a hope that there is a new heaven and a new earth, where there will be no more tears, pain, suffering or death. And this must naturally also mean, no more war. This is our hope. Because of the sinfulness of mankind this must remain a distant hope. Mosul, Aleppo, Libya, Sierra Leone, extermination camps, medical experiments on humans, rape and every kind of vile practice against civilians seems to have proliferated of late; yet we as Christians never lose our hope.
What insights Christians can offer to Remembrance Sunday are; sacrifice, inspiration to follow their collective character where they led, life after death, hope for the future.