Remembrance Sunday, 14 Nov 21
I recently saw the film 1917 and it presented accurately I am sure and strikingly the appalling conditions of the trenches during World War I. There were even rats running over the soldiers, which I really can’t cope with watching. I often wonder what would happen today if there was another such a war? For on the one hand war has never ceased, conflict always happens somewhere at every point during the world’s history ever since Cain killed Abel (Genesis 4:1-16). And yet there have been no wars with as big a loss of life as the two world wars of the previous century. Conflict has changed in its nature because of the advancement of technology. It is very unlikely as far as I can see that we’d ever have again conscription where men and women of serving age would be required to fight. But what would the response be? And I don’t believe the young are any more self-indulgent than people my age or older but I wonder if the pandemic of apathy would be too much for us to overcome in the face of a conflict like the world wars of the twentieth century.
Would people be willing to fight if the war were today or would men and women be too concerned with preserving their own life and find reasons not to fight? There’s no answer to the question because we can’t predict the future and it’s a false wisdom to try to offer firm answers to such hypothetical questions but the very process of asking the question and pondering is a chilling reality I think. We think so much in our own day and society about our own preservation and enjoyment, rather than the common good.
I ponder this especially because I know I would have huge reservations about being engaged in a combative role in a war because of the moral issues involved. “Thou shall not kill.” One of the debates within the Church of England during the wars of the last century was whether priests could be engaged in combative roles or whether they should be about caring for the wounded and ministering to the dying. It was part of a general uncertainty on the part of the Church of how to respond to these national military campaigns.
Such moral questions are good for us to struggle with. Remember that Jacob is given the name Israel because he struggles with God (Genesis 32:22-32). This identity continues to be given to us God’s people today in so much imagery of our life as the Church. In our first reading we heard of St Michael one of the archangels named in Scripture. He is dubbed “the great prince who mounts guard over God’s people.” Still today the Church calls on his patronage and his protection. Michael the Archangel is described elsewhere as being engaged in Heavenly battle (Revelation 12:7). These passages do not glorify war and nor do they say that all wars are always a simple struggle between good and evil, but rather they remind us that there is and there ought to be a struggle within us about doing good and doing bad, being holy and being fleshy. St Paul is honest in one passage in his letter to the Romans that he has this same struggle (Romans 7:15-25).
Prayer should begin and end the decisions we make. Thus we place what we are pondering in to the light of Jesus Christ, His will and His grace. We should consider how we will look upon the decision we’re making at the end of our life. We might consider how we would advise someone who came to us with the same problem. We should also try and work out what our motives are: why is this solution to the problem so appealing? Is it our vanity or is it furthering our relationship with God? Struggling is best done with another, seeing what he or she thinks about it. Rushing in to decisions is not wise but nor should our hesitancy lead to paralysis.
In Daniel 12 which we heard from, the great distress prefigures the final judgement, the second and general judgement humanity must face. The prospect for those who are found worthy, who have cooperated with God’s grace is to “shine as brightly as the vault of Heaven.” Jesus elaborates on this detail in the Gospel we heard from St Mark 13 where He speaks of his own future return by saying that the Son of Man will come in clouds with greater power and glory. This, the Lords second return, we particularly focus on in the Church’s year when we celebrate the season of Advent, which begins in two weeks’ time. The run up to Christmas is not just a period of worrying whether restrictions will be in place and whether there will be enough HGV drivers to deliver the Turkey and the sherry we need, Advent is a time for confession and an appraisal of how we make God present in the world today.
The beautiful Eucharistic Preface that we will use next Sunday at Mass reminds us that the Kingdom of God is “a Kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.” The kingdom of the age to come, for which we pray several times each day - thy kingdom come - is the kingdom where all eyes are focused on Christ, as the psalmist puts it, “as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master .. so our eyes look to the Lord our God,” (Psalm 123). The book of Daniel has big links with the last book of the Bible, the Apocalypse, and there we see a beautiful description of the what the kingdom of God will look like: “God will dwell with His people, He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,” (Apocalypse 21:4-5).
If that kingdom of Jesus Christ was seen more fully in our world today, there would be no more war. Until that day comes we need the sacrifice of women and men serving in the armed forces to support efforts for peace in the world. But peace is not the absence of the conflict; peace’s greatest enemies today I would suggest are apathy, fear, and self-contentedness. The mindset of “As long as me and mine are alright, nothing else matters” is a huge nail in the coffin of peace.
Our Lord uses the image of a fig tree in today’s Gospel. They’re pretty resilient: there’s a huge one in the house next door to the Good Shepherd and it’s a right pain, to be honest. Fig trees were pretty common in the world of the Bible, able to sprout up in difficult places. The temptation was surely then that when you saw a fig tree it was someone else’s problem, you wouldn’t necessarily take time to notice what was happening to it. In contrast, Jesus says, “as soon as its twigs grow supple and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near.” Observing what’s happening is important and then taking appropriate action.
One of the failures in the early twentieth century - and isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing?! - was to see that the alliances that European countries formed meant that they were in blocs and so it was sort of inevitable that a little spark would set off a huge conflict. Similarly, the punishment of Germany after World War I also was guaranteed to stoke up enough resentment within one of the major European powers to make the rise of Fascism and World War II almost only a matter of time. I’m not sure to be honest whether people at the time could perceive this or not.
That’s not meant to be an interesting introduction to the causes of the two World Wars, interesting essays though they would be, but rather an invitation to us all to look at our lives and see where there are obvious consequences to our actions: “If I do not live in in love and charity with this person that person will be effected in such a way … I will not fulfil my obligation to them but this will have a consequence on me… If I do not attend Mass … I will be isolated from God.” This is the lesson of the fig tree: to ponder our life and see the consequences of our actions. What do you need to change in your life? What consequences have you not really taken in to account?
One of my favourite hymns for Remembrance Sunday is “I vow to thee my country.” Unfortunately some within the church have shunned it as jingoistic and some have even banned it from worship believing it to encourage unhealthy nationalism. It’s their loss as far as I am concerned. The beauty of the words by Sir Cecil Rice comes only in the second verse which starts boldly full of hope, “And there’s another country I’ve heard of long ago.” “We may not count her armies, we may not see her king, her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering.” Utterly glorious and a wonderful reminder of our own vocation. There is another country where there is no war: it’s God’s kingdom and through our decisions day by day we can decide whether we’re working towards that Kingdom or not. Amen.