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These Lesser Calvaries

Remembrance Sunday

09 November 2003 11:00 | Fr John Slater

Yesterday I was at work, teaching Christ to lift his cross. I inspected his feet to see that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb and stands to attention before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.

Wilfred Owen, a passionate lyricist against all wars, writes in Flanders in 1918. His Christ is the common soldier, drilled and groomed for battle. Gethsemane is in the trenches and Christ becomes the sufferer on whom falls the burden of all wrongs - vast, anonymous, imponderable - that belong elsewhere in the pride and malice of the world.

Owen situates the horror of his own days, the angry oblation of the youth of his generation, within the drama of Good Friday - and in so doing he builds a bridge over the chasm which so often separates religious language from our everyday lives. I want to suggest to you today that there are four words which we use with great power on Remembrance Sunday, which are religious words and which also speak to us of profound values in our daily lives. The words are, remembrance, learning, thanksgiving and penitence.

Through much of the past year the conflict in Iraq has made us all too aware of the awful realities of war. Remembrance of just how terrible war can be is itself important, after all, those who forget the past are destined to repeat it! Remembrance is a way of learning from the past - some things we remember with thanksgiving, but there are other things which must be remembered with penitence.

When the poet saw Christ in the trenches, two things happened. First, by relating human suffering to the sufferings of Christ, he elevated human experience and gave it eternal meaning. But secondly, by relating Christ himself to today’s anguished world, he liberates the potential of that Calvary of 2,000 years ago to become again a powerful symbol in today’s world. Some would look at Jesus and see only a man of the first century hanged by the Romans, but by speaking of the Somme also as a Calvary, Jesus at once becomes the Universal Man, the Representative Man for all times. He is the man whose life is what all lives might be; he is the man whose death is somehow for us, whose life beyond death gives hope to us also.

So here are a number of elements for our observance. We remember; we give thanks and we learn. We remember the past, give thanks for those who died, and learn again just how terrible war always proves. But we also need to find space for that further element which is penitence. A sense of sorrow is more appropriate today than a sense of victory. Jesus died his sacrificial death with the words, Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.

The Remembrancetide hymn, O Valiant Hearts, speaks of the self-sacrifice of soldiers in war as a Lesser Calvary - an offering which finds its fullest meaning in the shadow of the great self-offering of God himself. Together, these great and formative events teach us that life is gift - God’s self-giving love to and for the world, but also the self-giving on our own part which is the only appropriate response of men and women who are aware of the cost at which their life has been bought.

Each Sunday the Eucharist reminds us of the self-giving love of God which finds its burning focus on the hill of Calvary. This Sunday teaches us also something of the potential of men and women to share that quality of love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

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