Yesterday was Veterans Day – also known throughout the world as Remembrance or Armistice Day. It marks the armistice signed in Compiègne, France, between the Allies and Germany at the 11th hour, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918, which brought an end to hostilities on the Western Front in the First World War. A time to remember with thanksgiving those who died in the two world wars.
Perhaps, aptly, it falls at a rather melancholy time of year: we have just celebrated All Saints Day and All Souls Day, and the gently falling leaves seem to pick up the mood. I was recently in England, and I was amazed at how many people, young and old, are wearing a poppy on their lapels – poppies, evocative of Flanders fields. A friend said that over the past ten years or so, the effect of seeing so many men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and seeing their coffins being brought home, as well as the acts of terrorism which have shaken London as they did New York, has heightened the awareness of what Wilfred Owen called “the pity of war.” And it will doubtless become more so as preparations are being made for next year’s marking of the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.
While I was staying with my mother, I was looking through some old boxes in the attic, and I came across a small sepia photograph. It was my father, sitting in a tent in the Western Desert in North Africa in probably 1942. He was in the Royal Engineers and was a bomb disposal expert. He would clear mines and look out for booby traps hidden in the sand. It was incredibly dangerous work, and in the photo he would have been only 20 years old – several years before I was conceived. And yet, as I looked at the photo, I knew him so well – even before I was born. My father died a few years ago, and yet I feel so close and connected to him, even though he is no longer alive.
What is this mystery which seems to bind us to those we love, this connection which the ravages of war and violence and death cannot break? There is a line from our reading today from the Book of Wisdom (2:23). It says, “God made us in the image of his own eternity.” That really struck me. In exactly the same way that God is eternal, we too are eternal. Although when we depart this life we appear to die, in truth, our profoundest self does not die but lives into eternity.
The Book of Wisdom puts it like this: “In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster. But they are at peace – for their hope is full of immortality.”
When my father died I believed that to be true, but I didn’t feel it. I felt only loss and finality. But over time I have come to know his presence in a very real and powerful way. Just as when I gazed at that photo in the desert and said “I know you and love you even though I wasn’t yet born” – so in my prayers now I can say to him, “I know and love you, even though you have died.”
“God made us in the image of his own eternity.” I have believed that by faith – I think I know it now by experience.
That closeness still felt with those who have died is a real mystery, but some lines from T. S. Eliot’s poem “Little Gidding” from his “Four Quartets,” are the nearest to describing the mystery. “And what the dead had no speech for when living, they can tell you, being dead: the communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.”
The ravages of war, disaster, violence and death affect each one of us. In our hearts especially at this time we hold the thousands of people who lost their lives in Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. And in our hearts and prayers we hold all those who are now experiencing grief and loss for their loved ones.
Our faith and our trust is that however much we may grieve and miss those who have died, death cannot kill the love that binds us together in a bond that transcends time and space. For it is ultimately the unbreakable bond of love which lifts us above both time and space, into the very life of God himself.
“God made us in the image of his own eternity.”
And in our Eucharist this evening, as we celebrate again the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the present is once more shot through with eternity, and we are brought, through love, into the eternal presence of God, and in that eternity we are drawn wonderfully close to the communion of saints, and to all whom we love, living and departed.
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