Archbishop of Westminster

Remembrance Sunday at the Chapel of the Chelsea Pensioners

Given at the Chapel of the Chelsea Pensioners on Remembrance Sunday 8 November 2015.

One hundred years ago, not today but at the beginning of May, John McCrae stood in the field of the second battle of Ypres, looking at the place where his friend had fallen and was buried. He stood in the churned up earth of soldiers’ graves and was amazed to see the rough soil enriched by thousands of poppies. Then he wrote these words:

In Flanders fields the poppies grow

Between the crosses, row on row

That mark the place: and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard among the guns below.

Those famous words, published that same year, 1915, in Punch magazine, have become so well-known and so resonant of today, Remembrance Sunday.

Today we gather to remember and pray for all those who have lost their lives in warfare, but especially those of the First World War and many associated with this wonderful establishment. Indeed we remember their bravery, their sacrifice, their stubborn resilience amidst such appalling circumstances. And, of course, we remember survivors of these conflicts, not least those who even today bear the burden of warfare in their minds and in their limbs. 

The poppy has, for many, become a symbol of this remembering and I hope of this prayer. A moment’s silence will be observed in so many town centres, at cenotaphs and town halls, but also in private quiet moments, on park benches and lonely rooms. Together we hold on to this moment with the solemn words: 'We shall remember them!' 

I am sure that everyone here today also remembers that remarkable display of poppies that surrounded the Tower of London last year. It was a display created to remember the centenary of the outbreak of that Great War. It consisted of one ceramic poppy for every soldier of the British Empire who fell during that war, 888,246 of them. It was a poignant sight and many wanted it to remain there permanently. As that display again comes into our mind's eye this morning, let us remember the title it was given: 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red'. 

I am told that this year the Royal British Legion wish us to consider the poppy as a sign of hope for the future. This is a sentiment that I am sure is welcomed by many. And it is appropriate too for the poppy was the first thing to grow in those Flanders fields, a simple promise of some great goodness emerging from so much ruin and destruction. Did you know that the seed of the poppy remains active in the soil for as long as eight years! It is indeed a symbol of a future to come, as yet hidden in the earth. 

This same theme has inspired many great thoughts. For me some of the most moving are contained in the wonderful hymn 'Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain.' Here the seed is that of wheat. In fact the Flanders fields had first been wheat fields. Here the seed represents not just the finest love that inspires heroism and sacrifice, but the very person of Jesus. He is that eternal love of God made visible in our flesh and experiencing, like us, the reality of death with its fear and abandonment. 

The hymn continues: 

In the grave they laid him, love whom men had slain,

Thinking that never he would wake again.

Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:

Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

 

Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain,

He that for three days in the grave had lain.

Quick from the dead my risen Lord is seen:

Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green. 

This is surely the deeper meaning of the hope to which the poppy can raise our hearts. This is not only a hope that the sacrifice of one death may serve to enrich another's life, nor that the deaths of millions may serve to fashion peace for millions, but the hope that death itself has been defeated and that ultimately it is the fullness of life that awaits us all when this life is over. 

How do we know that we are on the road that leads to such a promise? How do we know that this is a hope which we may properly entertain? The Gospel reading of our Service this morning gives us the answer.

It is given, by Jesus, in the unforgettable words of the Beatitudes. We should pay attention to the setting of these words. We read that before telling us the words spoken by the Lord, the Gospel writer carefully sets the scene. He tells us that Jesus went up the hill and that there he sat down. The early readers of the Gospels would have readily understood what was being said. They knew how to decipher the code. Going up the hill is to ascend to the place where God always comes to meet his people. The commandments were given on a mountain top. Elijah encountered the living God on the mountainside. God comes to his people in such a setting. In leading the people up the hill Jesus is making it plain that what is about to happen is a meeting with the majesty of God, something that will take us beyond human wisdom. 

Then the second thing to be noted is that Jesus sits down. He will speak to them from a sitting position. This is the gesture of the teacher, the manner of one who is about to proclaim a solemn truth, a judgment. 

So the setting for the Beatitudes tells us all we need to know in order to prepare to listen. These are words of great wisdom. These are words of judgment. These are words which come to us from the very heart of God, from the depth of the mystery of God. 

And they turn human wisdom on its head. Each of the beatitudes describes the place in which we will most readily and fully receive the blessings of God, God's blessedness and our happiness. It will come to us when we are poor in spirit, not taken up with the measure of our possessions. It will come to us when we are gentle rather than domineering; when we are dismayed by sadness and grief rather than exultant in our own achievements; when we are longing for what is right and just rather than being amused by how much people get away with evil and exploitation. The blessedness of God, that alone overcomes death, will be ours when we are full of mercy and forgiveness towards others, rather than demanding our pound of flesh; when we seek a purity of heart and a pathway of peace, rather than being part of a culture that feasts on depravity and cheap thrills. We will know the true peace of God even when we are criticised for being disciples of Jesus, mocked for holding to a religious faith in the one true God. Then these words are addressed straight to our hearts: 'Rejoice and be glad for your reward will be great in heaven'(Mt. 5.12). 

Many who died in the wars which we remember today did so clinging to their Christian Faith. Indeed for many, human violence both was and continues to be a great test of faith. So today we pray for them and for all who have died, in doing so strengthening our own faith in the midst of our own darkness. May God bless all who have given their lives, bringing them to their heavenly home, there to rest in peace as they await the final resurrection. 

The last words from me this morning, however, come from the lovely hymn I have been quoting. Its final verse never fails to touch me, especially on a day such as today. I hope these words touch your hearts too and stir in them a renewed faith in Christ Jesus our loving Lord. 

When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,

Thy touch can call us back to life again;

Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:

Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

Amen.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols

 

 

 

 

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