12th November 2017

The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Psalm 63, Judges 2: 7 – 19, Matthew 24: 21 – 35

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

At memorial services all over the world these lines from Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen” were recited yesterday – marking the 11th hour of the 11th month 1918; Armistice Day. The whole poem was first published in The Times of London on 21st September 2014. What came to be called the Great War, and later, the 1st World War, was only weeks old, but already heavy casualties had been suffered. Binyon composed the poem while sitting on a cliff top in North Cornwall, looking out over the sea. No doubt the casualty lists, which were to become such a dreaded feature of that war, were already taking their toll.

A few months later another poem was written, this time by a Canadian doctor serving in Flanders, Belgium. John McCrae penned the equally well-known words beginning

In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

And so the linking of poppy and remembrance came to be. Three years after the Armistice was signed, effectively silencing the guns that had caused such havoc and such terrible loss of life, a shipment of 9 million silk poppies arrived in England from America, ordered by the new Royal British Legion. They were sold and the money used by the Legion to help ex-service personnel rebuild their shattered lives.

While days of remembrance, the poppy and Binyon’s “We will remember” are found and used throughout the English-speaking world, other countries have different ways of remembering their dead. Germany observes the 2nd Sunday before Advent, usually about mid-November, as Volkstrauertag.

Sadly, what was dubbed ‘the war to end all wars’ was nothing of the sort, and the twentieth century, and now the twenty-first century, seemed to have learned little from those dark days of Gallipoli and Flanders. What has changed of course is that wars are no longer only between armies, and increasingly innocent civilians are the victims with loss of home, work and life all too common.

Take a moment to look at two pieces of art in our cathedral. The first is the reredos, that splendid piece of carving behind the high altar. The centre-piece is Christ seated in glory. Here is Christ the King, all conquering, all-victorious. Erected in the early 1900s it surely reflects the self-confidence, arrogance even, of the British Empire in the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign. But then turn and look upon the Pope window with its centre-piece – Christ in agony on the cross. Gone is the upbeat attitude of the reredos. Here is the suffering Christ, reaching out, in his own pain, to the pain of the world. Perhaps fittingly, it floats above the assembled guidons and penants. Below all that, in what I like to think of as the Peace Chapel, is a bowl of sand where people can light candles – symbols of their prayers for peace in the world.

As we listen now to the choir singing tonight’s anthem – a few words from that beautiful love-song found in the Bible and composed by William Walton as a wedding anthem – hold in your hearts and in your prayers all who are remembered at this time – the men and women who have died in war, the millions who have been killed by the ambitious madness of powerful people, those who have fled their homes in terror and are still numbered among the world’s refugee and displaced peoples numbers, and those who continue to live with the nightmare of war in whatever shape or form it takes. And may the love that is strong as death never be quenched or drowned.

It may be that you would like to light a candle as you pray for peace – feel free to do so, either during the singing of the anthem, or after the service.

From the Song of Songs
Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm:
For love is strong as death.
Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the flood drown it.

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.”