Lest we forget
Aidan Mayoss CRreflects on the war dead and our hope for life after death
We sometimes forget when we wrestle with different translations, compare gospels, consult commentaries and generally get ourselves into a tangle preparing for an essay or just a sermon that the gospel stories – and especially the ‘Obiter dicta’ of Jesus – began their life by being told. Books were sparse and readers more sparse; the word had to be spoken and we have just heard the incarnate Word speaking.
Not God’s will
This year especially we think of the millions of war dead. Everybody should visit once the huge war cemeteries and then look closely at the ages: 16, 17, 18 – and they were the official ages! They all had parents, wives, sweethearts. What can one say to them? What it is not is God’s will, ever.
A famous Presbyterian scholar, writing about this, said he could not conceive the God of Love ordering the end of something he has created. Every grave, not just war graves, every death leaves somebody diminished.
‘No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if it were a promontory, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee’.
So wrote John Donne, recovering from a mortal sickness.
Sent to their deaths
Especially are we diminished by untimely death, by war or accident. In the Imperial War Museum there is a big painting, by the American painter Sargent, of a casualty clearing station in the 1914 war after the first gas attack, a blindfolded and bloody man being guided by his mates; you can smell the fear and sweat.
In the National Portrait Gallery there is another Sargent picture – the same size – and this is of the first war generals. This one smells too – but of scent – and there they are all with their highly polished boots, not, of course, polished by themselves, and their claret-coloured self-satisfied faces; they sent all these men to their deaths. Never yet, so I was told, have these two pictures been exhibited together.
Rather than painting a very one-sided description of senior officers, I owe it to one of them with whom I had a conversation about the responsibilities of the most senior officers. He told me that the politicians decided that we shall go to war but he and his fellows were the ones who had to tell people ‘Go and kill or be killed’. It was very lonely, he said.
I am not a pacifist; I have certainly once in my brief military career been in the position of either kill or be killed. I do not recommend it.
The love of God
Much more than 50 years ago when I really was a baby curate in a mining parish and just after I was priested, I solemnized my first marriage. It was quite ordinary, a very pleasant young couple and much in love, nor was there a baby on the way! Three months later there was a disaster at the pit and the young man was killed. My training incumbent asked me to preside at the funeral, as I knew both of them, though he would also be there, along with some 300 others, and I had to preach. What I said then I have had occasion to repeat from time to time and I still stand by it. I told them that we, that is the congregation, were all mourning, we were sad because we wouldn’t see him anymore, everybody in the church was sad, save for the young man whose body lay in the coffin. The embrace of the love of God transcends the gate of death.
We began with a story told by Jesus to vanquish the Sadducees, an argument ad hominem but once we ponder on marriage – and so of love – we move into the worlds of poets, musicians and painters: the huge Resurrexit in Bach’s B minor mass ‘Praise to the Holiest’, the climax of The Dream of Gerontius and Piero della Francesca’s picture of the risen Lord We were taught that God is without body, parts or passions but the Son of God, the Incarnate Word, had a body, had parts and certainly passions and he, for us and all humankind, made that last solitary and mysterious journey into that world of untrammelled love which lies beyond.
I promised that I would say something about the separation occasioned by death, when we love another and that love is reciprocated and it is that mutual love which is a foretaste of heaven where love is triumphant. The love and companionship that a lonely old person has from her cat is but a glimpse, a taste, of the love that awaits us and which the young man whose body was in the coffin was actually experiencing as we wept.
The generous love of God is not cheap grace, it is costing, and so I finish with a verse of a hymn, written by Timothy Rees cr, a former principal of the college:
God is Love and he enfoldeth
all the world in one embrace
With unfailing grasp he holdeth
every child of every race
And when human hearts are breaking
under sorrow’s iron rod
Then they find that selfsame aching,
deep within the heart of God.
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