Saint Paul write to the church in Thessaloniki that he didn’t want them to grieve ‘as others do who have no hope’. He was working hard to resolve something that was keenly felt for those church members who had seen their relatives die before Jesus came back (as they expected he would very soon) and who were worried that their dead loved ones would miss out on the great resurrection to come. And he wants to tell them to grieve, but not like everyone else. He writes, ‘so that you may not grieve as other do who have no hope’.
But today, on Remembrance Sunday, perhaps we can be more modest about Christian claims to grieve differently from everyone else. Because today, we come together as a whole community, as a nation, to grieve together. We may need to be, just now, in separate buildings, separate homes even, but there is something about the story of today that brings us all together, simply as people. There is no hierarchy in grief of this kind.
I know it’s tempting for us somehow to want to say that some can grieve differently from others – it’s natural to want to grasp at straws of something that will comfort us quickly. Perhaps we might think that the victors can grieve more easily and comfortably than the defeated. I remember once being struck by war memorials in Germany… but of course they grieve too. Sometimes people write as though it’s harder that so many of the brightest and best were lost in wars, as though it’s easier somehow if you are just Jo Ordinary. I remember once noticing a memorial that distinguished the officers from the ‘men’. But all are loved, all are grieved for. We might all notice that many of the ways in which we remember, at least the first World War, are through the poems and memoirs of upper class writers and poets, but it was ordinary people like us who suffered and died in much greater numbers; labourers, farm hands, shop workers, mill hands and clerks. The war memorials in countless villages and towns throughout our land list the names not just of members of the Church of England, not just of Christians, but of people from all our communities. That’s why so many of them are in the open air, at the cross roads or in the market place. We all lost, and all grieve. There are not some whose grief is different; deeper, better or more worthy. We are in this together. We grieve just as others do.
For all people, of every kind, hope does not come first and easily. For pretty much all of us hope is hard to find when grief is so immediate and raw. There are those who said after World War 1 that, ‘hope, with future eyes and grappling fists, flounders in mud’. And those who said that the so-called Great War inaugurated a new world of ‘abridged hope’. To talk of hope seemed then, and perhaps still does, somehow indecent in the face of so much suffering and death. It was not enough to talk of comfort and hope, when death and wounding and profound trauma had come to so many. There are those who say that the war memorials of the WW1 are different from the ones erected after the Boer Wars. I saw one recently – from the Boer War – which talked of glorious sacrifice in defence of the British Empire and carried that infamous line that Wilfred Owen exposed as a lie; ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’. World War 1 memorials tend to be much more modest, more sombre, more grief infused, much less gung-ho, not glorying in war or empire or triumph, but simply mourning.
The losses, of course, were so great in that first world war – in the war from which this remembrance day takes it beginning. 20,000 British soldiers died in the Boer Wars, but that same number died in only one day at the Battle of the Somme… It is said that if you lined up those who died at the Somme four abreast and had them march past the Cenotaph in London the final four would have to start their walk in Durham. This war was so awful that no-one was interested in published memoirs or stories for some time to come. It was – literally – unimaginable. If we think we are in trauma now about Covid-19 then magnify that many times for this nation after WW1. It was a repressed trauma of the deepest kind. There were those who never came back and those who were never the same. And it was a crisis of faith too – before which the church found it hard to respond. How could anyone now believe in a benign, patriarchal God who orders history and events for good? The God of conventional devotion now seemed just absurd. In the aftermath of such a war, hope was, for everyone, abridged.
I have photographed two things for the worship material this week. One is the church ‘roll of honour’; the list of all those who served in the first world war. It is a long list – imagine a congregation emptied of all those people. And then there is the memorial for those who died. It is very plain, modest and simple, making no great claims of victory or glory. It is simply in grateful memory for those who died. They are listed; not even their Christian names given. I don’t know who they were or what they did before they volunteered or were called up, or how old they were. (read the list). I wonder what stories lie behind these names… a great silence surrounds them.
And of course it was after the first world war that people decided that silence was the most appropriate response. And the heart of any remembrance service is the silence – not the words or the music, not trumpets or orders – but the silence. Nowadays sometimes people clap at funerals or as a hearse passes, as though we cannot wait to celebrate and cheer, as though silence is too solemn. But today we recognise that the solemnity, the waiting, the emptiness and bleakness of silence is what’s really required. We are exposed by it and vulnerable within it, but it is the right thing… and sometimes the only thing we can honourably do is to keep silence. Sometimes it is best to say nothing.
I find myself wondering how those who came back to this church after WW1 – those who are on the Roll of Honour but not the memorial – mourned for their friends who had died. Perhaps they, like those Thessalonians to whom Paul wrote, wondered why they had survived while others had died. Perhaps they lived with a kind of guilt about living on themselves and finding hope again, even finding faith again, while others had already died. Like the Thessalonians they struggled with the reality that life is not fair and that grief is hard.
But if hope, after WW1 was in short supply, if hope was ‘abridged’ in that terrible time – and if it continues to be in short supply in the world today – where do we find it now?
I think that we don’t find it for a faithful few only – it isn’t only for Christians, or for the British, or for the young and lovely. The only hope worth having is a hope that can belong to everyone. We have a God who we have met in Jesus Christ – who himself died too young a violent death at the hands of soldiers – but who rose to life again and whose life is part of all our lives. Our hope is in the one who blessed the peacemakers and the poor and ordinary and grieving, who told us of a world different from this one, a world that would be open not for a privileged few, but for sinners and tax collectors and ne’er-do-wells. Our hope is in the one who made a sacrifice of his own life for the sake of others and who is present with us still. As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, ‘God will bring with him those who have died’. Today we remember those who have died, those who grieve and those who are left. We pray for the coming of that new world in which no-one will be left behind. And, from the ashes of silent grief we seize the beginnings of a new hope – for all of us. Amen.