St. Augustine said that it is memory that defines who we are. While bodies and minds constantly change, only our memories give us a sense of continuity between who we were and who we are now. Our communities have their own collective memories too that define what they are. Remembrance Sunday is about recollecting both the traumatic effects of war and the healing presence of peace in our communities.
Yet, there remains the constant risk that such memories will not be transmitted to new generations. The recent generations of European nations have either not been offered, or have failed to receive, much of traditional European cultural identity. This collective memory has many important lessons to teach: the central role of religion in pushing people beyond themselves; the horror of religious and political extremism; and the knowledge that war is rarely worth the cost to peace.
The death this year of the last surviving Tommy means that we can no longer claim any direct experience of the First World War. The same will be true of the Second World War before too many more years. The lessons that our collective memory can teach about war – that it can be both sometimes futile and at other times a courageous defence of freedom and tolerance – should never be lost. After all, despite claims that both of these wars would be the war to end all wars, we continue to experience a broken and divided world that often falls into violence, justified and unjustified. The past two decades have seen wars in the Falklands, Kuwait, Iraq, eastern Europe, and Afghanistan. How can our community remember the lessons learned with blood and pain unless we continue to remember with dedicated intention?
This is the real beauty of Remembrance Sunday. It transmits our collective memory in order that we should not forget. It keeps alive our communal identity so that we can recognise the horror of war at all times, but also the beauty and grace of peace. Remembrance Sunday also lifts us up from our earthly plane of reference. We also remember today that God is always present. In the power of the crucifixion, the tortured and dying Jesus shows solidarity with those who have suffered in war and felt the imagined absence of God. In the power of the Resurrection, the living Christ promises restoration, peace, wholeness, and new life to the world.
In the First World War, John Nicholson wrote a poem, "The Crucifix". In the poem, Jesus comes off the crucifix and speaks about a soldier's sacrifice. The outcome of this encounter is that the soldier is given a place in heaven, but also bequeaths to the next generation a heart determined on a future in which "the Hell of War is dead." The narrator of the poem wakes from this dream to articulate his faith in the resurrection:
And the thorn-crown on His head
Showed awfully in the moonlight.
But I knew he was not dead.
In our Remembrance services, we see that victory is rarely decisive in a world that demands universal, mutual co-operation and respect if anyone is to flourish. Jesus’ death shows the ultimate futility of violence. This is the challenge that Jesus puts to us today in the Gospel. "The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." The key word, of course, is "repent". Such repentance has less to do with guilt and more to do with turning towards God for peace and restoration. After all, whatever the motives of politicians, our faithful soldiers are in Afghanistan to establish peace. May we always seek likewise to remember God and the peace He shares.