As we remember and re-commit to peace

Remembrance

Revelation 21:1-7- Psalm 23 – John 15:9-17

The Very Rev’d Bertrand Oliver, Dean and Rector


This summer, I completed a project which I had started a few years ago.  When I was a child, one of our morning routines on days off was to go and wake up my mother with a cup of coffee, and often we would end up, my siblings and I, gathered on the bed, and listening to some of the stories from her childhood.  Some were very funny, many made us think.

I thought it would be good to keep this ‘oral history’ of my mother to share with grandchildren and future generations, and I started interviewing her on camera about her life from her early years to now.  In a few hours’ worth of video material, we finally completed a summary of her life, which included many of those stories which I remembered from long ago.

One such story occurred when she was still a young child, barely 5 or 6 and the family lived in Croix, in the outskirts of Lille in northern France, during the second world war.  Her father was a baker, and times were tough in a part of the country under occupation.  The family bakery had been requisitioned by the German army, and once a week, a group of young soldiers would come and use the kitchens in order to make bread and cakes for their regiment.

Over time, the relationship between my mother’s family and those young men eased – after all, they had family of their own back in Germany — and a sense of common humanity in adversity was re-established.

My mother could still speak of the time when she found her parents consoling one of those soldiers who, out of the blue, had been re-assigned to the Eastern front with Russia, and who was terrified that he was being sent to a near certain death.  There, on that sofa, was not the enemy but a frightened young man who had not experienced much of life yet, and might not for much longer.  This is an image that did not leave her, and did not leave us.

Today, we are here to commemorate the end of the two World Wars of the 20th century.  World War 1 was branded the war to end all wars, but sadly this did not come to pass.  Only twenty years later, the world was fighting again.

After both of those, the world took action that such global conflicts may never be repeated, and yet year after year, as we remember and as we re-commit to peace, we find that new wars have started; conflicts that we expected to be short have not come to an end; and the number of casualties on all sides include countless civilians, men, women and children mount up.

Last year when we gathered, we were specifically contemplating the situation in Ukraine which we hoped would resolve.  This year, fighting continues in that part of the world, and a new war has hit Israel and Palestine, after the acts of terror inflicted by Hamas on Israel.  Once again, civilians are caught in the middle, and the toll on populations is incalculable.

And there are countless other simmering conflicts that don’t even make the headlines any longer, partly because we have grown bored and inured to the resulting suffering, or simply because they do not affect our life at all.

And yet, these wars continue to affect human beings like you and me, people who one moment had a life, aspirations, hopes for the future, and were looking forward to living a productive life in peace and raising a family.  And who were suddenly plunged into grief, violence, hopelessness, despair, and perpetual uncertainty.

And yet, even in the midst of the darkest of darkness, there is always a glimmering light, piercing through, rekindling hope in humanity.

The extract of the letter of Capt. Bellenden S. Hutcheson reminded us both of the pointlessness of war, the particular horrors of trench life in Northern France during WW1, and the values of courage and dedication of those who, despite the danger to themselves, carried on to try and save desperate victims in apocalyptic environments.

His story mirrors that of the Canadian Grenadier Guards’ own Pte John Francis Young, also awarded the Victoria Cross, for similar selfless service on the Dury-Arras sector.

In his citation, the King wrote:   Pte. Young, in spite of the complete absence of cover, without the least hesitation went out, and in the open fire-swept ground dressed the wounded. Having exhausted his stock of dressings, on more than one occasion he returned, under intense fire, to his company headquarters for a further supply. This work he continued for over an hour, displaying throughout the most absolute fearlessness.

The Christian tradition, like most religious faith, encourages us to go beyond ourselves, to work for the greater good, to put the interest of others before our own.  This is the message that Jesus – when he was teaching, preaching, and healing in Palestine over 2000 years ago – was trying to share with those who would listen to him.

He summarised God’s most earnest desire for us: that we should love God, and love those around us as ourselves.

This summary recognises the most ancient of wisdom that it is only where there is true love that peace and justice can thrive.

It is only when we can love those around us whom we can see that we can say that we love God that we cannot see.

And it is only when we are able to love ourselves first – with all the talents and all the flaws that we have been given  – that we can even begin to start loving those around us.

As we heard in our second reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus said: ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ and ‘I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last’

Capt Bellenden Hutcheson and Pte Francis Young are not saints, and they probably had little idea of what they were going to face when going to the Front.

And yet, they are shining examples among the great number of those who in the first world war, and in many wars since, dedicated themselves to the welfare of others by putting their life at risk for the greater good.

The world has been a dangerous place and continues to be so, especially as we see the rise of totalitarian ideologies and of old enmities.  The rule of law is threatened, and the spectre of water and energy shortages around the world mean that further conflicts are likely if world leaders cannot find ways to share world resources more equitably.

Today’s wars are no longer waged simply on battlefields drenched with the blood of millions of young men.  For instance, remote controlled drones can home in on targets with reduced ‘collateral damages’ impact on civilians.

Contemporary war is also fought online, by attacking IT systems and servers that are vital to the ordinary life of countries – from power to healthcare to banking.

And it is also fought by propaganda and disinformation on an ever-growing scale, now propagated by AI driven systems that can form our opinions, subvert our democracies and lead us to support causes that in the end will cause us harm.

On this 105th commemoration of the end of the first world war, we remember the bravery and sacrifice of so many men and women, who fought to protect peace.

As we contemplate the world in all its beauty and all its darkness, we give thanks for all those who since then have dedicated themselves to the never ending task of working for peace while preparing for war, allowing us the privilege to live lives of freedom and security.

And we pray that the whole world may one day reflect this new heaven and new earth, where ‘Death will be no more;
and mourning and crying and pain will be no more’.

Amen

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