I served as parish priest of a small town in West Yorkshire for nearly twelve years.
In the church there was a beautiful war memorial, carved by Thompson's of Kilburn with their characteristic signature oak mouse. It commemorated the young men of Gomersal who had died in the first and second world wars. And as I got to know the people of the parish you could identify the family names of those whose sons, brothers and partners had been killed. It would have been easy to see that memorial as a pointer to the past, to a terrible moment in our shared history when some of the youngest and most talented of our community had their potential and futures cruelly cut short. It was a thing of the past and that’s where it belonged; a tragic chapter of European history.
But it wasn’t. Newly carved at the bottom of the memorial were the words: ‘Paul Oram, Northern Ireland 1984.’ Sergeant Paul Oram was 26 when he was killed by the IRA. He was four years younger than I was when I became parish priest. Suddenly that war memorial came to life for me. Here was not history, but the painful present. I often saw Paul’s parents tending his grave in the churchyard. Remembrance was for now, not simply for the past.
I often thought at the time that there wouldn’t be many war memorials around the country that were like the one in Gomersal. Sadly that has changed over the past twenty years with many parish memorials now adding the names of soldiers killed in the conflicts of the twenty first century. The majority were erected after the First World War, often like ours on Borough High Street with a statue of a solitary male soldier.
Some years ago I visited the Armed Forces Memorial at the National Memorial Aboretum near Lichfield. It is a breathtaking piece of architecture and sculpture, set on a hill. On top of the mound is a structure consisting of two curved walls and two straight walls. There is a crack in the external walls which allows the sun to pierce through the structure and illuminate a bronze wreath, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour. There are two poignant bronze sculptures within the memorial. They are both beautiful and shocking at the same time. They portray male and female soldiers tenderly caring for a dead comrade. But here we are not presented with soldiers from Flanders Field but rather 21st century soldiers from here and now. The memorial bears witness in stone to the sacrifice of 16,000 men and women who have been killed in the years since the end of the Second World War, from Palestine and Malaya in the late 1940s up to Iraq and Afghanistan in our own day.
It is important that we remember those who died in the First and Second World wars, for we owe them a huge debt of gratitude and they deserve to be honoured. But over the past 20 or 30 years there has been a shift in the emphasis of our remembrance tide commemorations. For the lessons of the past go seemingly unheeded and we continue to lack the peace the world so desperately longs for. Shockingly, at the Armed Forces Memorial there are vast areas of blank stones with no names inscribed – yet. These blank walls hauntingly predict a lack of future peace. The First World War was described as ‘the war to end all wars’ and yet here we are preparing to commemorate unknown soldiers who have not yet been killed but who we expect will someday.
So what is our response? During the First World War, an army chaplain Fr Timothy Rees who was a member of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, saw the carnage of the Somme and Flanders as a continuation of the passion of Christ upon the cross. When he looked out at the dreadful waste of mutilated youth he could not believe in a God who would stand idly by, watching from a distance. In the trenches, in the craters and the barbed wire, in the decomposing corpses and the scarred landscape, he saw Christ's thorn-crowned head and bleeding wounds. God was truly suffering and weeping alongside his creature, alongside humanity. The spilled blood of eighteen and nineteen year olds was also the spilled blood of Christ; their cries of distress and agony were his also. For Rees there were no victors on either side: loss and waste lay all around, but right at the centre lay the cross of Christ. He wrote these words:
God is Love: and he enfoldeth
all the world in one embrace;
with unfailing grasp he holdeth
every child of every race.
And when human hearts are breaking
under sorrow's iron rod,
then they find that selfsame aching
deep within the heart of God.
This was the only way that Timothy Rees could make sense of the suffering and God's response to it. What was true at the beginning of the 20th century must surely also be true for us today. God is crucified again and again in the ongoing suffering of humanity. But the Christian hope is that through the pain and waste of the cross comes the new life of the Resurrection. In the second reading we heard of the hope to which we are all called through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. St Paul writes, 'For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.'
In our acts of remembrance, particularly today, we both look back, remembering and honouring the dead of conflicts past and present and we look forward and yearn for a new order where God’s kingdom of justice, righteousness and peace will flourish and where all humanity may find an honoured place in the heart of God.
As we honour our dead, may we pledge ourselves anew to work for that new order where all will find their fulfilment in the peace of God.