Whenever we commemorate the dead there are three things going on. We mourn their loss, acknowledge and experience the pain of their separation from us; we also give thanks for them, celebrate the gift to us that they were; finally we, at least we who are Christian, express our hope that according to God’s promise they will be raised to resurrection life.
The mix of these varies; one who has lived a long and virtuous life and then passed without suffering into death surrounded by loved ones with whom she was at peace will be remembered with thanksgiving while one snatched early from a life a half lived leaving confusion and difficulty behind for those who needed him will be mourned painfully. This will also affect how easy it is to be hopeful, to have faith in what God has said. Where we are full of gratitude we will believe, where we are full of anger and disappointment we may well struggle.
I have had occasion over the last couple of weeks to think long and hard about these things. Immersion in the commemoration and study of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem was a powerful experience. The museum at once brings one face to face with the scale of the loss and the horror of the losing and asserts the creation of the modern state of Israel as a response to and a victory over the attempt to wipe out the Jewish people. This raises all sorts of questions and difficulties that I haven’t come to terms with yet and that I’m sure I will return to over the coming months.
What, though, about our commemoration, our remembrance? We are mostly thinking about young men who were killed in battle, young men whose lives were just starting, whose last moments were filled with violence and fear, far from those who loved them. On the other hand this huge assembly of the dead, for some of us, will stand behind particular mourned and lost individuals, whom we are thinking of today. For many of us, too, their deaths have the quality of martyrdom. They died for something, they died to protect this country, perhaps for an ideal of freedom or of justice.
We are mourning lives cut short but we are also giving thanks for victory and it fruits. For some of us one of these will be more important. I know of churches where today will be thought of as a commemoration of all those killed in war and as a protest against it, where the predominant message will be “never again”. This finds strong support in our reading from the prophet Micah, with its declaration that under the rule of God there will be no more war.
On the other hand I know many of us are deeply grateful that Britain won its great twentieth century wars and continue to give thanks for it, and for those who died in securing those victories. This gives a quite different tone to a service, a tone of solemn celebration and honouring of courage and self-sacrifice. This is often expressed through the words from John’s gospel asserting that the highest love is the giving of one’s life.
I can respect both of these approaches and I think both express important truths, but neither is what I want to do today. Instead I want to look beyond war, beyond hatred, fighting and beyond death itself. I want to follow the apostle Paul in saying that in the end death, and even life, are nothing compared to the love of God. Let’s just hear again what he wrote to the church in Rome.
I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Neither death nor life; the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord goes beyond what we know as death, what we know as life, says Paul. We know that, he argues elsewhere, because of Christ’s resurrection. Death and life are under God’s command, they are not the absolute realities they appear to us to be. Death itself, our mightiest enemy, our greatest scourge, has been conquered by the love of God. Equally life itself, our greatest good, our most valuable possession, is nothing compared to that love which can bring life to the dead.
This is the moment of hope when we remember our dead, the hope that lies in God’s all powerful love, a love that is with us here and now, in every moment of our lives and which is with us into and beyond death.
When we remember the dead we commemorate today, whether they be the British soldiers slaughtered in the grinding trench warfare of Flanders, the soldiers of all the nations from all the wars, the civilians who lost their lives in the conflicts, the victims of the Nazis or any of those lost in war, when we remember them, the faceless and nameless millions or the individual dear to our own heart, those dead for 100 years or those lost last year, when we remember them let us remember that they were each and every one lovely in the sight of God.
Every single one of them was known to God by name. Every single one of them was loved and valued by God. Each and every one was included in the offer of eternal life in the new creation to come.
So in remembering what has been, what has been lost, we hold fast to our hope in things to come. However we remember that is only one stage in our dealing with death and loss. From remembering we turn to hope, we turn to the future, we turn to God’s love from which nothing can separate us.