Greater love has no-one than this...

Fr Alec
Sunday, November 13, 2016 - 9:30am

If, one hundred years ago, we were not standing here, but instead were somehow transported to an area of Northern France, somewhere between Albert and Bapaume, we would find ourselves caught up in the midst of the final stages of the Battle of the Somme – an offensive which had lasted since 1st July, and was to end only after the Battle of Ancre drew to a close on 18th November. 


If ever you have been on a battlefield tour of The Somme, you are likely to have visited the Thiepval Memorial. It has the familiar monumentality of Edwin Lutyens who designed the Cenotaph in London, and its vast bulk dominates the area around.  

It is a melancholy and bewildering experience walking around it and through it, because on every side of its stone piers are carved the names, more than 72,000 in total, of those who were recorded missing presumed dead – whose remains were never accounted for. 


Overall, casualties on both sides over the five months of the Somme numbered well in excess of one million, of whom over 300,000 were dead or missing. The mind cannot really make sense of loss on that scale. What are we to do with numbers like these? When each of them represents a whole life with its intricate network of relationships, commitments, thoughts, passions, sorrows and joys?


The truth is that human loss is not measured in numbers or statistics, but in friendships. If, standing in the midst of the Fourth Army, we had asked any of the young soldiers there what it was that motivated them to keep going in the midst of the carnage round about them, we may have heard talk of King and Country, or of the high ideals they felt they stood for, but more likely the answer would be framed in terms of friendship. Their closeness to, their responsibility for, the man next to them. This, when push comes to shove, is what glues together any fighting unit. Or, come to that, any human endeavour.


Likewise, it is personal reflections on a human scale which come to mind as we stand in silent remembrance. Not long ago, I was looking at photos from the First World War, which had been carefully re-coloured from the black and white, and the effect it had was to pull the figures in the pictures out of the sepia-tinted past, and make them feel modern and contemporary and relevant. All of a sudden these were familiar faces, wearing the smirks and frowns of soldiers I’ve known, friends I’ve lost, adopting the same combat-casual slouch as they pose for the camera with a cigarette in hand. Above each was written the date and manner of their death. It brought home to me suddenly and vividly just what that generation gave, and just how much we owe.


Many of you will have particular individuals which come to mind today from the far more recent past. Friends and family-members, colleagues and comrades who have fallen in the conflicts of our own generation. Today is an opportunity to honour them, not with pomp and circumstance or any forced displays of piety or brash claims of heroism, but with simply and silence. A silence which is eloquent because it expresses an absence – somebody who is not there. And as people gather all over the country at 11 o’clock to keep that silence the cumulative effect is to call up an immense quiet monument of remembered names and faces.


So we gather today to raise this monument again in the presence of Almighty God, knowing that the same friendship which binds us together with those who have gone before us is what already binds them to God in Jesus Christ. It is a friendship into which we are all invited, and which, like any friendship worth the name, is built on self-giving, self-sacrificing love.


As we remember today all those who have given their lives in the service of their country, we remind ourselves that Remembrance is concerned not only with the past, but with the future. We are here not only to honour those who have gone before, but to ensure that their sacrifice was not for nothing. 


We have a responsibility to uphold and defend the values and principles that make our country worth defending. To act with honesty and integrity, imagination and compassion. To reject cynicism, narrow self-interest, and short-term pragmatism. To ensure that those whom we elect to positions of responsibility are properly held to account when they seek to put our armed forces in harm’s way.


Christ invites us into friendship, and the only condition of that friendship is that we extend love to one another. To insiders and outsiders. To neighbours and to strangers. To friends and enemies. We are called with Christ and in Christ, to lives of sacrificial, self-emptying, forgiving and reconciling love. Only then can peace abound and justice flourish.