Sermon for THIRD SUNDAY BEFORE ADVENT (Remembrance Sunday) HIGH MASS Sunday 10 November 2013
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
God surprises me. On two occasions of late I’ve attended the passing out parades for young soldiers who have completed their basic training. And on each occasion I was quite overwhelmed. I don’t think it was sentimentality, although there would be nothing wrong or surprising about that. Nor do I have any illusions about the reality of service life. What I saw there mattered. It was as if a memory had taken shape in front of me. I’ll tell you what I saw. I saw the vulnerability of young lives. I saw the pride that comes with doing more than one’s best. I saw the pride and anxiety of those letting their sons and daughters go. I saw resilience. I saw the sacrifice of the one for the many. I saw a great tradition being carried forward, borne aloft, entered into, not assessed from a distance. I saw discipline, I saw order. Above all I saw transformation.
And it was entirely right that I should be thrown off balance by this confrontation, because these Christian qualities no longer operate at full strength in my life, and maybe not in yours either. We are paying a price in this country for our delusional personal freedom, for our risk-free lives, for our selfish disconnected society, and the price is the diminishment of the soul. When the national roots become shallow, when we put ourselves first all the time, then we do forget, there’s no room for remembrance, because any act of remembrance needs to dig deep into life, to connect us with what has gone before. We don’t invent the meaning of life ourselves in our time, we discover it, and that means trusting ourselves to the height, breadth and depth of God’s love, in all times and places, learning to live compassionate lives of remembrance. Remembrance means transforming our minds, our lives, so that we forge again our personal link with those who have died, renewing the link between the dead and the living, between past and present. Never forget. They were flesh of our flesh. They sat where you are now and they daydreamed and they wondered, and they looked forward to long and happy lives. God was with them and He loves them as much as He loves us. A nation which forgets its war dead has lost the war. If we condemn the glorious dead to extinction, their sacrifice will have been in vain. Our religion demands remembrance. The march taking place right now past the Cenotaph in the presence of the Queen is a protest march for the right to remember, the duty to remember and say thank you. It is a national march which is, in its way, a call to arms, a call to reconsider our careful, selfish lives.
During one of the emergencies in East Timor, some terrorists swept down upon a little church and killed the one hundred and fifty worshippers. In time the church was rebuilt, and the only priest to escape held a little service of remembrance. He was asked how he was able to go back there. And he said: we believe that a memory or remembrance is the pulse of love. Remembrance is the pulse of love. Thus the more we remember, the more we love.
Remembrance Sunday is a profoundly Christian festival. 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. 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, because our personal national loves and hatreds are dissolved in remembrance. There is no other way. On Remembrance Sunday it is Christian, it is Christ-like, not to forget, not to avoid, not to deny, 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 give up our too precious, self-obsessed, risk-free religion – and to go back, as Christ goes now wherever there is suffering, to where those men and women died, and be with them. 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.
Today we are asked to remember those who have died in the world wars and subsequent conflicts, on all sides, including those non-combatants throughout the world whose lives were smashed, who never recovered. It’s an impossible task, but it’s our duty to try. One way to do that is to take remembrance a step further, beyond those graves, beyond those numbers, beyond the crushing sadness of it all. This is a festival of the endurance of the human spirit, a thank you for that resilience, for the willingness to stand up and be counted upon, that I saw, in its fresh shoots, on those parade grounds. The way we can celebrate the festival is by living lives of remembrance ourselves, lives of compassion for all Creation. Christian remembrance is to find the Cross and embrace it, to embrace the suffering, as God does, with compassion. At the end of each passing out parade I attended, a chaplain emerged in a flowing surplice, and blessed the entire assembled company in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. God be with them, and with our country, as He is with those who fell, forever young. The defeat of God on the Cross became His Victory at the Resurrection. The Last Post seems so final at the going down of the sun. But in the morning too we shall remember them. And the more we remember, the more we love, and the greater their victory.