This week brings us to Remembrance Day, always a remarkable part of the educational programme of the School. The largest team that any of you will ever be on is the Cadet Corps. It is the School as a corps, a body, a living body, and not a corpse, a dead body, I hasten to add! Though, to be honest, that partly depends on all of you stepping up and keeping in step with one another; in short, honouring and respecting one another as part of something bigger than yourselves, a community defined by certain principles and ideals. In a way, the corps is the School on parade.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the armistice that finally ended the Great War. It is so significant that November 11th marks our remembrance of the Second World War as well, itself a continuation in many ways of the first. There is something powerful and arresting about the First World War that remains with us and rightly disturbs us as imparting the legacy of something profoundly disquieting about ourselves. We are only beginning to begin to come to terms with the horror and the evil of our humanity. There was something cataclysmic about the First World War which I fear we still struggle to comprehend and have yet to understand fully let alone from which to begin to learn.
Remembrance Day is not about the glorification of war. The Great War, after all, unleashed a wealth of literature, poem after poem, and novel after novel, that is profoundly anti-war, opposed in a deep and fundamental sense to the glorification of war. That we should have to be reminded of this points to a deep forgetting and a profound literary ignorance if not insouciance in our contemporary culture, as if we were above and beyond such things, superior and better than those who have gone before us. I fear the arrogance of a progressivism that is so convinced of its own self-righteousness and so oblivious of its own hypocrisy especially in the face of the atrocities of our own times.
Remembrance Day is a sober remembrance of the senselessness and the madness that our humanity in its disarray and evil is capable of unleashing against one another and against our world. It forces us to look within, to look at the evil of our own hearts and to realize with a fall of own hearts that we are not very different from those who have gone before us. Even more, it should provide some critical self-reflection about our technocratic exuberance that instead of providing the solution are simply part of the problem. It is that possibility of a deeper thoughtfulness that is the most necessary and significant feature of our Remembrance Day observances.
Wind and cold, rain or snow, who knows! And yet the discomforts of Remembrance Day are part of its meaning. You should be so lucky that such are your complaints, at least in comparison with the sufferings of those who went off from where you are sitting in Chapel and never returned. We meet at the Cenotaph, literally an empty tomb, both in Windsor and here at the School because of those who gave their lives. The madness of the First World War and the even greater ideological madness of the Second World War have left an indelible mark on our minds. We still struggle as we must to make sense of the senselessness of it all and to discover that in many ways it is all about what is also in our hearts.
That is why this reading from John’s Gospel which adorns a thousand cenotaphs in a thousand communities across this continent and across the world is so important. “Greater love has no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends,” Jesus says on the eve of his impending sacrifice. Suddenly we are opened out to a whole other dimension of our humanity which challenges everything about ourselves. Are we willing to entertain the idea of living for one another to the extent of dying for one another? Somehow, that is the instinct and the idea that underlies our Remembrance Day observances.
Remembrance Day follows providentially and wonderfully shortly after the great spiritual harvest festival of All Saints. That festival is the strong reminder to us of our human vocation. All Saints embraces as well the Solemnity of All Souls, itself a strong reminder to us of our common mortality. The golden thread of grace runs through the common grave of our deaths and so, too, through the wretched and vile horrors of war. All Souls simply remembers those who have died, sometimes in some places remembering them by name, but oftentimes thinking about the unknown, the unnamed, and the unremembered and the forgotten by us. The greater point is that they are known, loved and embraced by God in his all-knowing and all-loving of us. That is the powerful teaching of All Souls’ Day. Nothing and no-one falls outside the embrace of God’s love.
“You are my friends,” Jesus says, in what is one of the most amazing statements in the whole of the Scriptures. It captures the meaning of the Incarnation. It is about the divine friendship which in Christ becomes the basis of our friendship with God and with one another. That doesn’t mean that God in Christ is your buddy. It means that there is a deep and profound relationship established by God with us in the very face of human wickedness and sin. Just to think that might change how we think about everything.
You have heard me read in Chapel the Scriptural phrase that “God is love and he that abideth in love abideth in God and God in him.” In the twelfth century, Aelred of Rievaulx wrote a wonderful treatise, On Spiritual Friendship, in which he translates that Johannine phrase into “God is friendship.” It is a profound insight not only into the phrase about “God as love” but as informed by this later statement where Jesus calls us friends after describing that greater love, the love which is about living sacrificially, living for one another. We are only beginning to begin to understand how powerful, how rich, how significant, how joyous and how wonderful such a statement is. It says something about who we truly are in God and with God and so with one another. Even in the face of the hideousness of war and the hideousness sadly found within our hearts. Yet, Jesus says, “I have called you friends.” His word changes everything.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy
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