Sermon podcast: Remembrance Sunday4 Nov 2019 By Peter Atkinson
Peter Atkinson, Dean of Worcester, 10 November 2019.
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For the past five Remembrance Sundays we have traced the centenary of the First World War from those disastrous days in the summer of 1914 following the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo to the armistice at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. We might perhaps wonder whether ‘remembrance’ is now spent; but of course it isn’t. Thirty years ago, in my early years as a priest, one might have thought that the observance of Remembrance Sunday was on the wane. My generation thought of it as the concern of our parents’ generation. But then it revived. Armistice Day itself revived. And the reason, I think, is not hard to work out. British troops were again engaged in conflict across the world. Bodies were being repatriated. The people of Wootton Bassett became accustomed to lining the streets as hearses drove from the RAF base through their town. The nation still needed moments of solemn remembrance. The crowds attending Remembrance Sunday ceremonies increased once more.
In 1919 there was controversy and anger in this country over the decision to rebury the fallen of the Great War in vast new war cemeteries in France and Belgium, instead of bringing their bodies back to this country. Instead of the crisp and immaculate graveyards we are now used to seeing across the Channel, we would now have tens of thousands of graves scattered through the churchyards and public cemeteries of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth, and the United States.Some would be lovingly tended; others by now would have fallen into neglect. Perhaps there was both loss and gain in that decision.Certainly, the great military cemeteries of the Continent are a constant reminder to the whole world of the enormous slaughter of those years – the wiping out of a generation of young men. We may feel there is still some poignancy in the familiar lines of Rupert Brooke:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
And perhaps we do need to be reminded how much sacrifice, how much flesh and blood, how much life and death, this country expended in the course of two world wars for the sake of Europe, and indeed for the sake of the world.
As Christians, we know that where the bodies are buried is an important matter. We honour the body in life and in death, we have a long tradition of returning mortal remains to the earth, dust to dust, earth to earth, ashes to ashes. But we also know that, in our faith, the death of the body is not the last word. Graves in churchyards and cemeteries in Christian lands face east, the rising sun, the dawn of the Resurrection. Not that we believe that the dead will literally rise from their graves, but it is an old custom that signifies our belief in the ‘resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. In the Christian faith we not only look back, in remembrance, in sorrow, and in gratitude: we also look forward, in joyful anticipation of the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ with all the Saints, when the dead shall rise to new life in the Kingdom of peace and light.