Remembrance and hope
The Bishop of Lichfield, the Right Revd Dr Michael Ipgrave, called people to look back in remembrance and to walk forward on a 'path of peace-making' at a packed Armistice Day service at Lichfield Cathedral.
Around 1,400 people attended the Remembrance Day event which also saw the release of white doves for peace outside the Cathedral (pictured above - photo by Chris Day) and the planting of the first trees as part of a new Peace Woodland in nearby Beacon park.
Bishop Michael spoke of remembering those who lost their lives in 'sadness, in pride, in humility' but also used Lichfield Diocese's warm friendship with the Nordkirche churches in Northern Germany as a sign of hope. "It is hope that stands alongside remembrance for us today," he said.
The full text of his sermon reads:
Here we are on Armistice Day 2018, but how did people feel on this day one hundred years ago?
None of us were there to know, but in his diary for 11th November 1918, Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, recorded an encounter on his walk home in the evening through the scenes of jubilation across London. He met an elderly woman, dressed in deep mourning, sobbing her heart out. Wilson said to her:
'Madam, you are in trouble. Is there anything I can do for you?'
'Thank you, Sir, but no. I am crying, but I am happy, for now I know that all my three sons who have been killed in the war have not died in vain.'
Sorrow and joy stood side by side: Armistice Day then was a day of strong and mixed emotions. And one hundred years on, today our keeping of Armistice Day still touches deep levels of emotion, and still those emotions are mixed. Facing the immensity of this commemoration, we know within ourselves an awe-struck need to pause, to reflect, to be still, which is compounded of many feelings.
It is remarkable to see how this centenary has been taken up by so many people, of all ages and from every part of society; I have been particularly struck over the last few days by the crowds who have filed through this Cathedral to witness our moving Poppy Fields projection. And it is not for nothing that at the heart of our observance is a period of silence, beyond all words.
For the woman Sir Henry Wilson met on 11th November 1918, as for so many on that day, sorrow and joy stood side by side. What are the things that stand side by side for us today? One thing looks backwards, and it is clear what that is: it is remembrance. And one thing looks forwards: what can we call that?
We are clearly here to remember. The raw grief that woman knew has mellowed for us as we look back on the Great War, but it is still overwhelming to call to mind the numbers involved, and still more powerful when we focus on the stories of individual men or boys who were killed and wounded, of woman and girls whose lives were scarred by the loss of loved ones, of communities diminished robbed of a generation. Military and civilian, old and young together, we look back in sadness, in pride, in humility.
And how do we look forward in our world today? There seems to be so much that creates a sense of fear and foreboding among us; we see divisions between nations, and still more divisions within nations; the language of distrust, hostility and violence seems if anything to be gaining more currency. It might sometimes feel as if the sacrifices we are honouring today were in fact made in vain, that we have not taken the lessons of remembrance into our heart.
And yet there is hope. In this diocese, we enjoy a warm friendship with the Nordkirche, a fellowship of German Protestant churches reaching across the north of Germany from Hamburg in the west to the Polish border in the east. Last week, Bishop Gotthart Magaard of that church wrote to me from Schleswig to send greetings to mark this day. He said:
'We realise once more, that this long period of peace which we have experienced up to the present day cannot be regarded as a given, but is a precious experience we all share.
'The beginning of Psalm 46 comes to my mind: ‘God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear’. These are words full of hope and they are a strong support for many people that are in trouble in our days and are longing for peace just now. And we are reminded of our responsibility and our calling to keep working for peace, justice and freedom and to keep praying for each other.'
So wrote Bishop Gotthart from Germany. He is right that we need to reach out in confidence and trust to one another in our divided and anxious world: for it is hope that stands alongside remembrance for us today.
Where can such hope be found? Look up and you will see that for the first time this year in this Cathedral we are marking Armistice Day under a wonderful new cross-shaped icon of ‘Christ crucified, risen and Lord of all’. It has been painted by artists from one of the most troubled and divided parts of our world – Bethlehem, on the frontline of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
From that town, which is the birthplace of Christian faith, we receive this sign which speaks both of remembrance and of hope. The cross directs us to remembrance of humanity’s sorrow, pain and sin, as it shows us Jesus unflinchingly accepting the darkness of death; and in that cosmic event, God takes upon himself all the suffering and loss which we remember today. But the cross also is a sign of hope: of mercy, power and new life. Our faith is, that all the evil, hatred and violence which our fallen world throws up is not sufficient to destroy God’s purposes, and the Lord is raised on the third day with the promise of new possibility for us and for our world.
In a few moments, we shall hear set to music words of extraordinary beauty and conviction, which speak of the mystery of new life; they were penned by Siegfried Sassoon in the morass of death and destruction which was the Western Front. As you listen to them, reflect on the path of peace-making to which we are called on this solemn day: making peace in our homes and families, as we treat one another with kindness; making peace in our society, as we honour those who are different to us; making peace in our world, as we build, maintain and repair bridges between nations.
And as you listen and reflect, look up to this great sign of the cross, the same yesterday, today and forever. Here our remembering and our hope stand back to back, as sorrow and joy stood side by side for that woman a hundred years ago. Here is the only lasting hope for our world, our nation, our life together:
For he is our peace … reconciling us to God in one body through the cross, putting to death the hostility through it.