Why must I live in this grim age,
When, to a far horizon, God
Has ebbed away, and man, with rage,
Now wields the sceptre and the rod?
Man raised his sword, once God had gone,
To slay his brother, and the roar
Of battlefields now casts upon
Our homes the shadow of the war.
The harps to which we sang are hung,
On willow boughs, and their refrain
Drowned by the anguish of the young
Whose blood is mingled with the rain.
Words of the welsh poet Hed Wyn, a farmer, also known as the shepherd poet. In 1917, he won the highest award for Welsh poetry at the Eisteddfod with a poem he sent from the trenches of the Western Front. Like many, he did not want to go to that war, but he did not want his brother to be sent in his stead. When they announced he had won the prize and asked for him to come forward three times, because he had sent the poem in under a pseudonym, it was discovered that he had lost his life on the first day of the battle of Passchendaele six weeks earlier. In his absence, they draped a black sheet over the bard’s chair where he would have sat.
Passchendaele, a three-month battle exactly 100 years ago, the old photos depict an immense sea of mud, charred trees, and dead bodies. Here, in this apocalyptic landscape, the welsh poet died from a shell to the stomach. A creative life gone, a family distraught, a nation in mourning for their lost bard. And as his blood blended in the rain, so 500 000 other soldiers would die with him at Passchendaele.
We continue to remember them with poppies and works of art, like the installation at our high altar. And in our silence, we realise that each has a story to tell for our times…..
I want to share three other stories of war with you on this Remembrance Sunday. The first is represented in the image on the front of your service sheet. At first glance, it looks like a traditional religious depiction of Mary holding the corpse of her son Jesus, known as a Pieta. The figure was sculpted by Käthe Kollwitz, a famous German artist. It is called “Mother with Dead Son”, made in 1937. Kollwitz had lost her own son, 19-year-old Peter, in the First World War. She had been proud of his resolve to fight for God and the Fatherland, but his death and that of millions of others caused her to question. She said, “There is in our lives a wound that will never heal. Nor should it.”
She was the first woman admitted to the Prussian Academy of Arts, but Hitler had her expelled, her work denounced, and harried by the Gestapo in her old age. In 1993, her sculpture was enlarged and placed at the centre of Germany’s National Memorial to the Victims of War and Tyranny. It stands alone in the middle of a large empty hall. Above it there is an oculus, a hole in the roof, which allows the snow, rain, and sun to fall upon it unencumbered. Underneath it, there are two graves – one of an unknown soldier and the other an unknown concentration camp victim.
In 1920, Kollwitz wrote: “It is my duty to voice the sufferings of people, the sufferings that never end and are as big as mountains.” She died two weeks before the end of the Second World War, by which time she had also lost a grandson to war.
Today we remember the many lives lost in war. The grieving as big as mountains that continued for parents like Kollwitz. The grieving for lives lost that continues for many even today…
My third story is of a Scottish soldier, Alistair Urquhart, who bore unimaginable suffering. He died two years ago. At the age of 20, he was taken prisoner by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore. He underwent the death marches through the jungle to build the railway and Bridge over the River Kwai in Burma. Somehow, he survived starvation, constant beatings, torture and cholera. Further slave work followed in Singapore before he was transported, in the so-called Hell Ships, to Japan. His ship was sunk by an American submarine and he drifted alone in the South China Sea for 5 days, before being picked up by a Japanese fishing boat. He was taken to Japan and consigned to slave work in the mines. Unfit to work underground, he was given the task of looking after the vegetable gardens of the Japanese army. It was while working there on August 9, 1945, that he was knocked over by a strong hot wind, the blast of the nuclear explosion in Nagasaki a few miles away.
All of this and more he survived, a journey that would fit the great depictions of hell by Hieronymus Bosch. And like many other veterans he kept quiet. For sixty long years he kept quiet. Only when his wife died did he begin to share his story in schools and in a book, to remind today’s children and us of the horrors of yesterday.
Today, we remember the evil and pain endured in war. We give thanks for the fortitude of those like Alistair, for their witness to the depravity that humanity is capable of and the refusal to let it conquer them.
But, alas, the horrors of yesterday are for many the reality of today. My final story is of Ruquia Hassan. She lived in an ancient city on the banks of the Euphrates whose name is synonymous now with torture and death, Raqqa. Many of those who fled the brutality of the Assad regime went to Raqqa. She was a young Kurdish woman, a philosophy graduate and a journalist. She decided to stay when ISIS took the city and imposed their cruel ways. As she chronicled the destruction of her homeland, she wrote “No one loves us like the graveyards.”
She continued to post on Facebook until she was captured by ISIS and executed sometime in late 2015 or 2016 – her body never recovered. In her final post she wrote, “I’m in Raqqa and I received death threats. When ISIS arrest me and kill me it’s ok, because while they will cut off my head, I will have dignity, which is better than living in humiliation.”
Today, we also remember people like Ruquia, and all who have shown courage and dignity during war. All who have been prepared to die for a better world for those of us who still live.
And, we remember also our own loved ones. Those known personally to you and to me whose lives have been destroyed by war. Those known to us who continue to suffer through injury, loss and trauma…
And we set this remembrance of the dead and damaged of war within a different act of remembrance which lies at the heart of our weekly worship, our Eucharist. Where we recall the passion and death of Jesus, his execution in the face of human sin, of which war is a terrible manifestation. We recall Christ’s self-giving in love that stretched out to all, friend and foe alike. In him, we recall a God who loves us more than the graveyards, in whose memory we are given life. I invite you now to our act of remembrance. I invite you to stand in memory of those whose lives have been given and taken in war.