Sermon for Sunday 14 November 2021
Remembrance Sunday 2021. Fr. Julian Browning
Every human life is sacred. The Holy Spirit lives in every human heart. Remembrance Sunday is a profoundly Christian festival because it states just that: those who were sacrificed were full of divine life. We have a lot to do; we try to include in our remembrance all those who died in wars, whichever side they were on, including the innocent civilians, in the near present and the distant past. That’s an impossible task. So we find examples, real people, you will have your own way of remembrance, memorials up and down the land, bearing the names of those who died for our freedom in two World Wars.
We remember today not only those who fought, but all those caught in between, of no allegiance, whose lives were torn apart, those who fled and wandered the earth, those who stayed and suffered unbelievable degradation and fear. For that task we gave ourselves a formal two minutes. But at least it was two minutes of silence. Our silence declares that Christianity does not have easy answers to human existence. We are not called to broadcast a glib Christian solution to death and the evils of war. Christianity is the way we listen in the silence. Remembrance is more than just remembering. Remembrance is the pulse of love, binding us to that past without which our lives have no meaning. Shared remembrance is stronger still. We cross the boundary of time. We try to say, I was there, I saw it happen. The past becomes present, and it becomes present through love and forgiveness. We reach out to them. A nation that forgets its war dead has lost the war. God cannot forget them, because God was with them as they lived and as they died. Today the war dead are present to us. “The Christian proves him or herself a disciple of Christ by hating no one, by condemning no one, by rejecting no one.” [Thomas Merton] Remembrance gives us space to uncover our gratitude, and our pride, our empathy with those who died for our freedom, a cause greater than themselves. Our traditional observances, such as the commemoration at the Cenotaph have a religious purpose. As Gustav Mahler put it: Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.
Or so it should be. But our remembrance, and our traditions, are now threatened by new cultural masters, who do not believe in forgiveness. Cancel culture, identity politics, cultural correctness, the removal of statues, the demotion of our national heroes on the spurious charge of colonialism whatever that might be, guilt by association, diversity training, no one is spared. I won’t spoil our day with examples – what should concern us is the effect of all that upon our nation: division, condemnation, and above all a toxic shame; instructed to be ashamed of our country, to be ashamed of our history, and to be ashamed of ourselves, placing ourselves at the mercy of Soviet style Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Groups. Badges of shame, first for the statues, then for us. As former bishop Michael Nazir Ali says, we are threatened by “a neo-marxist theory developed to create conflict by dividing people into victims and villains.” The study of history is rendered meaningless. This deep cultural malaise, the collective ignorance in our universities, the spiral of iconoclasm in the media, the constant negative self-assessment, so full of its own anger, repudiating the nation and its heroes, all this is the opposite of Christian Remembrance.
We have a way to protest against this new moral hierarchy, this new slavery of the mind. A protest is made this day at the Cenotaph in the presence of the Sovereign. The men and women we commemorate there died so that we could be independent spirits, that we may “in dignity and freedom dwell”. And we make our own daily protest here. At his Last Supper, Jesus said, This is My Body given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me. Do this out of love for me. Do this so that I am part of you today, so that you can live with my life, for you are forgiven. We enter the silence of remembrance every time we take communion. We learn there, from the way God does things, opening up His life for us to share it, giving His life for us, to make space in our lives for others, including those who are forever silent, and including our enemies. There is no other way. On Remembrance Sunday it is Christian, it is Christ-like, not to forget, not to avoid, not to deny, not to condemn, but to enter the suffering of others and weep with them. It is Christian, it is Christ-like, to look for hope in the most unlikely places, among the wounded and defeated. It is Christian to see a unity, one body, where others see division and the barricades. It is Christian to disarm our personal defences, to make a sacrifice ourselves and to go back, as Christ goes now wherever there is suffering, to where those men and women died, and be with them. There we find our freedom: the basic human condition is not separateness, but communion, “being with”. God is with us; the bleak world of war is not forsaken by God, but suffered with him. And this isn’t just pious theory. This is your life and mine in practice, because in the exercise of Remembrance, we learn compassion, Christ’s compassion, and it is compassion which transforms our lives into lives worthy of the huge sacrifices made on our behalf.
The silence after the Last Post seems so final at the going down of the sun. Their sacrifice seems so pointless, so cruel, so terrifying, so heartbreaking. But in the morning, we remember them. The more we remember, the more we can love, and so the greater their victory. For our Remembrance is nothing less than a sign to the world of God’s compassion, the first sign of our hope that in the morning the Sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in his wings.