Pausing to remember
Today we pause and we are silent to remember. We remember those who have courageously fought and died in war; on this centenary of WWI, we remember that one in four families experienced loss of a family member. Some of them from this community who were just teenagers. We honour them today and we remember. Today we stand in solidarity with all those who have been injured and bereaved. Of those who fought and of those who still fight.
You may have seen the striking images from the installation at the Tower of London where over a period of four hours each evening this week, volunteers fill the moat with thousands of individual flames: a public act of remembrance for the lives of the fallen, honouring their sacrifice.
These sorts of acts of remembrance are particularly important for a generation like myself that has only experienced war through the censored TV channels of news reportage.
We must be shaken from any complacency about the true horrors of war, never just see numbers and statistics but real, aching, blood and tear stained human lives. Of children and the elderly, the pregnant and critically ill, caught up in a conflict not of their making. Books and films have given a glimpse into the brutality of war, as has poetry.
Ted Hughes is well known for his war poems. He grew up in the 1930s, his childhood overshadowed by the legacy of one war and foreshadowed by the arrival of the next. And he wrote poems throughout his career reflecting upon these conflicts and their impact. Here’s one entitled: ‘Crow’s account of the battle’:
There was this terrific battle.
The noise was as much
As the limits of possible noise could take.
There were screams higher groans deeper
Than any ear could hold.
Many eardrums burst and some walls
Collapsed to escape the noise.
Everything struggled on its way
Through this tearing deafness
As through a torrent in a dark cave.
The cartridges were banging off, as planned,
The fingers were keeping things going
According to excitement and orders.
The unhurt eyes were full of deadliness.
The bullets pursued their courses
Through clods of stone, earth, and skin,
Through intestines pocket-books, brains, hair, teeth
According to Universal laws
And mouths cried "Mamma"
From sudden traps of calculus,
Theorems wrenched men in two,
Shock-severed eyes watched blood
Squandering as from a drain-pipe
Into the blanks between the stars.
Faces slammed down into clay
As for the making of a life-mask
Knew that even on the sun's surface
They could not be learning more or more to the point
Reality was giving it's lesson,
Its mishmash of scripture and physics,
With here, brains in hands, for example,
And there, legs in a treetop.
There was no escape except into death.
And still it went on--it outlasted
Many prayers, many a proved watch
Many bodies in excellent trim,
Till the explosives ran out
And sheer weariness supervened
And what was left looked round at what was left.
Then everybody wept,
Or sat, too exhausted to weep,
Or lay, too hurt to weep.
And when the smoke cleared it became clear
This has happened too often before
And was going to happen too often in the future
And happened too easily
Bones were too like lath and twigs
Blood was too like water
Cries were too like silence
The most terrible grimaces too like footprints in mud
And shooting somebody through the midriff
Was too like striking a match
Too like potting a snooker ball
Too like tearing up a bill
Blasting the whole world to bits
Was too like slamming a door,
Too like dropping in a chair
Exhausted with rage
Too like being blown up yourself
Which happened too easily
With too like no consequences.
So the survivors stayed.
And the earth and the sky stayed.
Everything took the blame.
Not a leaf flinched, nobody smiled.
War is no laughing smiling matter. The violence in Ted Hughes’ poem is not meant to be gratuitous. One is meant to recoil. One is meant to feel shocked and horrified. ‘Nobody smiled… nobody smiled’.
A rabbi was asked whether a garment that had been symbolically torn in grief could be sewn up and used again. Yes, he replied, but you must not disguise the tear. A profound point. The scar must always show. We carry our collective and individual memories around with us, yet in a way that begins to be healed.
Today we pray for God’s kingdom, God’s peace, God’s shalom, to come and heal our broken world. As Christians our vocation is to be peacemakers. We are called to witness to the prince of peace, who gave up his life to bring new life.
As our collect reminds us, it is the “just and gentle” rule of God in Christ which offers hope to a world “divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin”.