Walking through the grim, sad corridors of the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, you come across the words, emblazoned on a wall, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ Today we come together to remember the past, in particular we remember and honour all those who lost their lives in World War I and in subsequent conflicts up to today. We thank God for their sacrifice, usually in conflicts that were not of their making, and we pray for those who continue to suffer as a result of their loss. But how do we remember? If we go away having only done these things, if we go away unchanged by what we are doing, then we will have been self-indulgent and will have dishonoured their memory. Patriotism is not enough.
‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ The process of remembering functions a bit like the rear-view mirror in a car. If, as we drive, we only look in the rear-view mirror interested only in what’s behind us, then we won’t get very far before we crash. If we disregard the rear-view mirror, looking only at what’s in front, we may be able to keep going for a while, but eventually there will be disaster when what’s behind us catches up with us and tries to overtake us in unexpected ways. When we are clear about the direction of travel, when we know where we are heading, we use the rear-view mirror to be aware of and negotiate with what’s behind, so that we move forward positively and confidently. What has gone before us affects the present and the future, but it doesn’t have to control and shape the present and future – unless it is allowed to do so. There are different ways of remembering. We can remember in a way that holds us back, keeping us trapped in the past or we can remember in a way that releases us into the future. We can remember in a way that the past becomes a millstone or we can remember in a way that the past becomes a stepping-stone. Let me give some examples.
Robin Eames, former Archbishop of Armagh and a major influence in Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement tells the story of a woman he met in South Armagh who had lost her husband in the struggles of Northern Ireland. She kept a picture of her husband on the wall in the corner of a room. When she looks at the picture, dragged down by the pain of his loss, her demeanour becomes sharp and haggard and she refers bitterly to the ‘terrorists’ who killed him. No judgement can be made on this lady’s reaction. But her present is dominated by her past. A past which is unaddressed and unredeemed affects the present, can become a means of excluding others and also an opportunity to continue fighting the battles of the past.
Compare that to the way that Nelson Mandela viewed the past on his release from prison in South Africa in 1990. The many years of incarceration could have resulted in his emerging a twisted and resentful man plunging South Africa into a bitter and bloody conflict, but the way he emerged and remembered the past must be one of the miracles of the twentieth century. We have no control over what happened in the past, but we can control the way we look at it.
So too with us, we do honour to those who have died when, as we remember them, our resolve to work for a better, more just future is deepened and set on fire.
In our first reading we heard a passage from one of the most subversive and radical books of the Bible: the book of Revelation. That book was written to support people who were undergoing persecution and facing death. When, in the middle of their trials and conflicts, they heard those words ‘I saw a new heaven and a new earth,’ they were given hope and reassurance, hope that they were not being abandoned in the middle of their sufferings and reassurance that God would not turn his back on them. In many ways the hope for a new heaven and a new earth lies in the middle of the aspirations for the COP26 conference. This hope, this goal to strive for, gave strength and encouragement to those people in Revelation facing persecution. The goals of the COP conference for a less polluted heaven and earth give hope and encouragement to those whose countries are disappearing beneath the sea and those whose cities are choked by fetid fumes. As we remember the fallen this morning, what are the goals for which we strive that will honour their memories?
The second reading, from St. Matthew’s Gospel, a passage called the Beatitudes, helps us formulate some of those goals. When addressing his followers, Jesus Christ is saying that in God’s world, society’s generally accepted priorities are turned upside down. The people who have a particular place in God’s heart are not those that the world views as significant and important, but they are the poor in spirit, the grieving, the meek, the weak, those people, often unpopular, who work hard for justice, peacemakers, the pure in heart and those who are persecuted like those in our first reading. We have all recently experienced the world’s priorities being turned upside down, when Covid came on the scene. We then appreciated that it was the people who cleaned the floors, who washed and looked after the sick and dying, health-workers and care-workers willing to risk their own lives for others, the people who are poorly paid and not very high in the social pecking order, it was these whose importance we recognised. When we are able to question and change some of the old priorities, we are seeing a new heaven and a new earth coming into existence. And, when we support them, we are honouring the sacrifice of those we are remembering today.
I want to end with the story of Edith Cavell who was a nurse in the first world war celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers, without discrimination, from both sides of the conflict. She also helped soldiers escape from enemy occupied territory in Belgium – for this she was arrested and eventually executed. On the night before her execution in 1915 she wrote, ‘Standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough: I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.’ Patriotism is not enough. Edith Cavell highlighted the importance of our not having hatred or bitterness towards anyone. The way we remember is important. What do we want to work for in order to honour the fallen?
Readings: Revelation 21.1-6; Matthew.5.1-12
Preached at Wootton Courtenay, Exmoor, Somerset.14th November, 2021.
Image 1: Remembering: Wootton Courtenay Church.
Image 2: Armed Forces Memorial. National Memorial Arboretum, Staffs.
Image 3: Photo:Dean Calma / IAEA Opening ceremony of the World Leaders Summit at the COP26 Climate Change Conference 2021.