Saturday, 7 November 2015

Re Remembrance

Every time Christians celebrate the Eucharist - their principal act of worship because ordained by the Lord himself - they engage in an act of remembrance. The Eucharistic Prayer, the prayer of consecration, sometimes called the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, includes these words: 

And so, Father, calling to mind his death on the cross,
his perfect sacrifice made once for the sins of the whole world;
rejoicing in his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension,
and looking for his coming in glory,
we celebrate this memorial of our redemption.*

This passage is what's technically called the anamnesis. It's related to the word amnesia - loss of memory - except it means the opposite: it means the very act of remembering. "Calling to mind" that Jesus died, rose again and ascended to his Father. Why do we call to mind, remember, this almost every time we worship?  Because it defines us, reminds us of who we are, who God has called us to be.  We need to hear it over and over again, particularly every time we do what he told us to do, lest we forget why, and so forget who we are.  This is our story, this is our song.  We retell it, re-sing it, relive it.  We are a people for whom remembrance is a defining act.  Do this in remembrance of me.

There are those who believe we should stop remembering the dead of the last century, especially those of the two world wars. They say that our remembering glorifies war. They say it's time to stop it.  We don't actively remember the dead of Agincourt, Waterloo or the Boer War: why, after so long, do we need to remember the dead of Passchendaele or the Battle of Britain?  I suggest because the two world wars and some of those that have followed them finally brought home to us the true cost of war.  Unlike those which preceded them, these were not wars that solely concerned individuals fighting in faraway places in pursuit of honour, territory and glory.  These were wars that directly affected every person on this island: rich and poor, male and female, young and old.  They were wars that formed us - defined us, if you like - in some sense made us who we are. My father fought the Japanese in the jungle swamps of Burma; my mother's family home in east London was destroyed in the Blitz. They, I, we are different people from those we would have been if those conflicts had not taken place. You and I need to remember who we are, where we have come from, and how we got to where we are now. 

Among the condolence cards I've received in the last couple of weeks is one from a priest friend, and on the front of it is a picture I would guess painted in about 1920, in the aftermath of the First World War. It shows a priest celebrating the Eucharist in the traditional way: at the high altar with six candles, his back to the people, the deacon at his right hand (both in black vestments), a server kneeling on the altar step, the subdeacon and thurifer at the side, and a cloud of incense above them all. (Well, this was close to the apogee of Anglo-Catholicism.) But, in the picture, above the living, are the recently dead. Alongside the statues of the warrior saints, like St George, can be seen the spirits of the war-dead: soldiers, sailors, nurses, even clergy.  Nearly all young and all in uniform. They are both obscured and revealed by the incense, their ethereal forms taking on the neutral colour of the church wall, ghost-like. But they are there.  That is the point.  They too stand before the altar of God, and worship as we do.  In Holy Communion we draw as close to Him, and to them, as it's possible to get in this life.

We Christians are never cut off from the departed: they are the Church Above, as we are the Church Below.  Though separated by the narrow stream of death, we worship as one. One Church, one faith, one Lord.  On this day especially we honour them because without their sacrifice we would not have our freedom.  Our freedom to live and love and worship as we do now.  Their deaths helped to form us, helped make us the people we are before God.  And because we are Christians, we are bound to remember them.

* Common Worship: Eucharistic Prayer B

"The Place of Meeting (at Holy Communion)" by Thomas Noyes-Lewis (1862-1946)
(c) The Martlet Bookbinding