Remembering the dead in war takes many forms. Some memories come unbidden: men who fought in the trenches or were imprisoned in the camps have woken drenched in sweat as they re-live in dreams the horrors of what they once suffered, once did, see again the faces of lost companions. Other memories are framed and preserved. Parents, widows, lovers treasure letters, photographs, or lockets. And while these are personal memories, tokens of love in grief, a nation forms and guards a collective memory in its memorials and museums, its poetry and novels, from high art to Downton Abbey, its biographies and historical analysis, while it pays respect to those who died in the ritual of Remembrance Day.
Tonight’s Gospel invites us to set such personal and communal memories in a further frame of remembrance. This Gospel is set not amid the violence of war, but is taken from Christ’s farewell discourse at the Last Supper, as violent forces of evil close in on the figure of Jesus. Those forces will scatter the community of disciples gathered around him, as soldiers first arrest Jesus, then mock and torture him, before he is taken to judgement and an excruciating death. Yet all is not lost. The disciples are not to lose heart. For the Spirit they are to receive from the Father will enable them to remember and so keep to His teaching. What is more, in that act of remembrance they will find a new peace which comes from the presence of Father, Son, and Spirit, a communion with God.
These are startling, perhaps bewildering promises. We may not at first see why it takes the Spirit for us to remember what Jesus said and did – until we reflect, that is, on the forces which shaped Roman politics and history, the narrative of imperial power in which this holy man was held a criminal; and until we realise that keeping the commandments is a matter of both heart and head, requiring insight into what is truly good, and courage to pursue that good. For ours is a world where love of God and neighbour sets us at odds with injustice, collusion in deceit, indifference, and sin in its myriad forms. Doing good is not so easy.
At this point, we may wonder even more how the Spirit could bring us peace. It appears on the contrary that such remembrance will set us in conflict with powerful forces which could do much to destroy our comfort. And that’s surely right. Those who speak out for justice are often brutally silenced – like the Catholic bishop in Guatemala battered to death with a concrete post for speaking out against abuses of human rights, or the religious sister killed in the Amazon for her opposition to illegal logging.
What peace can there be amid such violence? We need to reflect more on the teaching which Jesus would have us remember. For that teaching wasn’t only nor first a list of moral ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s. It was a message of forgiveness, of the love extended to us by God in Christ. It is an invitation to discover ourselves as loved by God with the infinite love that the Father has for His Son, and an invitation to love God in return with the infinite love that the Son has for His Father. What is more, Jesus did not only teach by what he said. He taught by what He did and suffered for us. And through the Gospel we remember and learn how the Father raised Him from death at the resurrection to eternal glory.
To recognize such love, to enter upon such a communion, does not disengage us from the political or economic mess around us. It does not shield us from the horrors of war or terrorism. But it reveals the deepest meanings to the conflicts in which we are caught up, as we see what love of God asks of us amid these difficulties; and peace which Christ gives flows from the knowledge that nothing but sin can separate us from that love of God. That love may cost us dear in different ways; it costs the martyrs everything. But there is nothing we can suffer which cannot be redeemed as we share by grace in the risen life of Jesus Christ.
The modern university may stress the value of cutting-edge research, of new discoveries and technologies, of enlarging our scientific understanding of the world. This is in itself may be well and good. But such advancement of knowledge is not itself the wisdom which we need to think well about our mortal lives, to come to terms or grips with the changing world. This hunt for new knowledge alone cannot equip us to deal with the memories of past wars, or square up to present climate change and to an unknown future. Christian remembrance does offer such a wisdom. It directs us to Christ as one who can share with us that spirit promised by the prophet Isaiah, of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. In its central liturgy or rite of Holy Communion it remembers the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and recalls the final Kingdom in which every tear is to be wiped away, where ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’ Directing us thus to our final destiny, may it enable us by the grace of God in the power of His Spirit to honour those who have fallen and to think and act well in this present life.
Fr. Richard Finn, Blackfriars, Oxford
13th November 2011