It was a Wednesday night at 8 o’clock in Ypres, that once devastated, now reconstructed Belgium town around which half a million Allied soldiers lie. I stood there in the crowd gathered from the whole world over, and heard the Last Post played, as it is every night in Ypres at the Menin Gate. And I listened to a group of young and proud Australian high school children, in stockman hats and oilskins, read the Lawrence Binyon lines we’ll hear again today.
Those same young people were on their way to Gallipoli to join thousands more of their age from New Zealand and around the commonwealth to stand and remember in the dawn light a war that is now three generations removed from them.
On this 99th anniversary of World War I beginning, and the 95th anniversary of the armistice that ended the conflict, it’s remarkable that remembrances like this Sunday and Anzac still continue to find new life, especially among the young. The survivors of that nightmare war have died, but the memory of their self giving and the sacrifice has not died. It endures as a central metaphor of our identity as New Zealanders and Australians.
In Mark Haddon’s marvellous novel about an autistic boy called Christopher, the young man finds metaphors very confusing, until his mother explains that his own name is itself a metaphor. Christopher is the saint who carried Christ across the river. The boy embraces that role and becomes a carrier for others.
That’s what days like this do for us. They carry so much of who we are and something of who Christ is for us.
Such metaphors are precious taonga, treasures rescued from the horror of what happened at Gallipoli and Flanders and the Somme and wherever Anzacs died alongside their Allied comrades, in battles like Passendale, the scale of which we are only beginning now to understand.
It takes 90 years to break the silence of these places.
In Sebastian Faulk’s novel Birdsong, Elizabeth retraces her grandfather’s forgotten war on the Western Front and visits a memorial gate on Flanders field.
She looks up at the British names “their chiselled capitals rose from the level of her ankles to the height of the great arch itself, on every surface of every column as far as her eyes could see, there were names teeming, reeling, over hundreds of yards, over furlongs of stone.
Who are these, she asked?
These, said the man, they are the lost, the ones they did not find.
From the whole war, she asked?
No, just these fields?
Elizabeth went and sat by rows of white headstones, “each cleaned and beautiful in the weak winter sunlight.
Nobody told me, she says
My God, nobody told me.”
Remembrance Day ensures there will be somebody to tell the story.
St Paul has some advice on that. We heard it read a minute ago. Writing to Timothy as a younger church leader, Paul passes on his story at two levels.
In lyrical language that we are fond of using on Remembrance Days, he talks of his impending death as a libation poured out, a boat unmoored for its final journey, a wreath of recognition for a life of service to others. Like a good soldier he has finished the race and kept the faith.
But then the tone of the letter changes abruptly into a language we don’t use easily on Remembrance Days, but is even more powerful for keeping memories alive. It is the concrete language of things and places. Paul introduces it by confessing his loneliness, remembering places, once memorable to which he’ll never return,
Demas, his old friend, now lost to him Crescens, gone off to found a church in Gaul Priscilla and Aquila, he a Jew, she a Roman, who risked their lives for him Puden – a senator, and Linus, a Bishop of Rome An intensely personal a litany of people and places.
And things as well. An old cloak he needs for the winter, and favourite books and his precious writing paper.
When I visit the battlefields where our fathers and our grandfathers died, I’m always overwhelmed by the personal details of their diaries and letters and pockets.
The British infantryman dug up at Boezinge only a year or so ago, still curled in his 1915 trench, clutching his rifle, had with him a French dictionary and a pack of cards and a jar of Bovril.
He hadn’t been to Ephesus, or Corinth, or Galatia like Paul. His Europe was made up of Belgium places with Tommy names:
Hell Fire Corner, Shrapnel Crossing, Suicide Road and Dead Dog Farm.
But these places and these things, like the metal debris on the heights of Gallipoli, become sacramental items on Remembrance Day. They connect like electric wires to the raw energy of memories that make us who we are.
Through the details of these soldiers’ lives, we are able to address them directly, personally, 99 years on, and say to them as Paul said to his friends:
May God’s grace be with you, as you gave your grace to us