Today is Remembrance Sunday. It falls, as we are all vividly aware, during the centenary of the First World War,. This takes our memories in a certain direction. That war was to end by Christmas, everyone said. Instead it opened a new and terrible chapter in history.
May I quote three stanzas from John Masefield’s August 1914, set in the quiet of the Malvern Hills.
How still this quiet cornfield is to-night!
By an intenser glow the evening falls,
Bringing not darkness, but a deeper light;
Among the stooks a partridge covey calls.
The windows glitter on the distant hill;
Beyond the hedge the sheep-bells in the fold
Stumble on sudden music and are still;
The forlorn pinewoods droop above the wold.
And silence broods like spirit on the brae,
A glimmering moon begins, the moonlight runs
Over the grasses of the ancient way
Rutted this morning by the passing guns.
Well, the guns kept passing. We talk of a World War. It would become that, and its successor even more so. But we should remember that the origin of these wars and their main focus was in our own continent. In the 19th c., Europe had been what one historian calls ‘the powerhouse of the world’. A century ago, it suddenly turned in on itself like some creature from mythology and began to devour itself. ‘There are shades of barbarism in twentieth-century Europe, writes Norman Davies, which would once have amazed the most barbarous of barbarians…Europeans acquiesced in a string of conflicts which destroyed more human beings than all previous convulsions put together…What is more, in the course of these two war-bloodied generations, the two most populous countries of Europe fell into the hands of murderous political regimes whose internal hatreds killed even more tens of millions than their wars did…The totalitarian horrors of communism and fascism, when added to the horrors of total war, created an unequalled sum of death, misery and degradation’ (Norman Davies, Europe p. 897). Out of the First World War came the Second, and out of the Second the Cold one, in the strange light of which the more senior of us were reared. Recent events in eastern Ukraine suggest that War still simmers. And since the end of the Cold War, even before, other areas of the world have turned toxic, and in quite new ways. The music is the same, but the orchestration very different. One needn’t detail this. But all the time, through the exponential of violence, the population of the deceased – humanity’s other continent – has been growing at a rate beyond the natural. It has been estimated that between 1914 and 1991, some 187 million people lost their lives through violence. Each of these is an individual, complete in his or her-self. Each of these has family, friends. Each of them bereaves. Each of them, however unintentionally, has left behind tears and pain. Each local community, in a country like ours, has felt the loss. And on it goes.
This story is not the whole story, of course. But it is the one we remember today. In the Catholic tradition, November in general is a month when the departed are remembered, prayer offered for them, for the repose of their souls, and cemeteries are visited, candles lit and so on. And this is not morbid; it’s healthy and human. On the 11th, next week, I’ll be privileged to be with some 25 or so bishops from the European Union, to visit the cemeteries at Verdun and to take part in Evening Prayer for the dead in the Cathedral there. Even though British troops were not directly involved in that battle, the Scottish and Gordon Highlander casualties of the Western Front will be in my mind. And today is Remembrance Sunday for our whole society, believers or not. And this is not morbid either. There may be something pale and incomplete about our ceremony, and we feel a little ill at ease. But it isn’t morbid; rather, sobering, appropriate, respectful, wise. And it moves our memory a certain way.
At Easter 1900, a Russian philosopher in a book about the dawning century asked this prophetic question: “Is evil simply a natural defect, an imperfection which will disappear as good grows, or is it a real power which reigns over our world by means of temptations, so that if we are to fight against it support must be found in another sphere of existence? This is the vital question.” (Vladimir Soloviev).
Indeed. Is evil a real power? It would seem crass to deny it. And if so, is there support from another sphere of existence? And if there is, how can we access it? Coming back to Europe, to the UK, to Scotland, to the house of our own society, is there – in the attic or the cellar or in a locked cupboard, as it were, in our memories or hearts or traditions – a resource which will enable us to fight the power of evil? I think there is. It is a second memory. It is a backdrop to today, enshrined in readings and prayers and our presence here in St Nicholas’. It is the memory of a particular death and of a resurrection. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ In the Gospel of Mark, which we heard, this is the only word from the Cross. It could be the cry of swathes of humanity since 1914. Of the 4 Gospels, Mark is the bleakest, suitable therefore for today. But suitably also the voice that breaks the silence is a soldier’s, a Roman officer’s: ‘In truth, this man was son of God.’ He must have seen many men die, that centurion. But he says what he says when he hears and sees this death. And the next scene but one, after the hurried burial, is the discovery of an empty tomb, and another voice: ‘He has risen, he is not here.’
On the horizon, on the edges, of our first memory, of this vast loss of life, beyond our sense of the evil, there glimmers this other memory. It’s a memory of a death mysteriously capable of embracing every other death and of opening a passage through it to another sphere of existence, a passage accessible to anyone. It’s the memory of an event at once in history: ‘under Pontius Pilate’, and from another sphere of existence: ‘Truly this man was God’s son.’ Above all, it’s a memory that generates hope. It can take away any sense of pale incompletion to our commemorations. It generates a hope both for our departed and for us still in the battle. A hope both for the beyond and for the now. It is that resource from another sphere of existence, which can sustain our efforts for the common good of neighbourhood, city, shire or country, the local and the global.
Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright, philosopher, statesman, and one of the heroes of 1989, described it thus: “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Either we have hope or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons …Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed… Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Wasn’t the resurrection of Europe post World War II the fruit of such hope? Or consider the tearing down of that Wall 25 years ago this year, the almost bloodless end of Communism. The guns go on rutting the roads and churning the cornfields. The world’s sky is not a bright one currently. But there is this something other, mysteriously irrepressible; this hope. It’s the source of the unexpected resolution of intractable problems, of surprising reconciliations, of outbreaks of peace that weren’t anticipated. It’s a hope with deep roots in the human psyche, with a long ancestry in our Scottish and British and European culture. It’s a hope with deeper roots still in the nature and purposes of God, in an empty tomb on the fringe of Jerusalem. It’s legitimate
“…because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
‘On this mountain he will remove, we heard Isaiah say, the mourning veil covering all peoples, and the shroud enwrapping all nations, he will destroy death for ever. The Lord will wipe away the tears from every face.’
So let us remember and let us hope.
Kirk of St Nicholas, Aberdeen