Remembrance - Reflections for November 2020

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Remembrance - Reflections for November 2020

The Revd Canon Dr Rachel Mann

Week one: Where Soul Meets Angel

If November has increasingly come to be seen as a month of remembrance, this year it is going to be especially poignant. The ongoing and seemingly relentless effects of the coronavirus pandemic casts a pall over all we do.

This year’s All Saints and All Souls Days, let alone Remembrance Sunday, will hold in their midst an unquenched and unresolved grief that holds together both individual and communal stories. The nation grieves the loss of tens of thousands of lives, as well as – arguably – a set of assumptions about how to live well and safely. The ‘new normal’, as it is sometimes called, is yet to be established.

How might All Saints and All Souls hold this lack of resolution, this ‘feedback-loop’ of anxiety and loss?

I know All Souls Day or, as it is also known, the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, is problematic for some non-Catholics. Traditionally, it is a day in Catholic devotion when all those in Purgatory are held in prayer. What is extraordinary is the way All Souls has, in recent decades, found new life among the wider, increasingly non-religious community.

A feast like All Souls – which can entail simple rituals of candle lighting and a ‘roll call’ of names – has gained traction, perhaps precisely at a time when many people have struggled to find an authentic language for death. When we remember, we ‘re-member’. We bring back together. In a world where touch and social relations have been so carefully regulated, how we need All Souls this year.

However, we should not dismiss the transporting power of All Saints Day. Perhaps, this year some will be cautious about it for, in so many ways, it is a ‘triumphal’ day, when we, the Church, hold in praise and adoration all of our forebears who have been great witnesses to God’s abiding love. I do understand that caution. Joy, even in the midst of loss, matters, though. I shall still seek joy in the vision of the great cloud of witnesses who worship God in his very presence, interceding on our behalf.

We might also wish to draw on a more chastened, but nonetheless wonderful image of the Saints. St Paul use the word ‘saint’ to mean all those sanctified by Jesus Christ. Thus he can write his epistles to ‘all the saints’. This is a vision of sainthood which includes the exceptional heroes of the faith (like St Peter or St Francis or St Clare and so on), but holds us too and those whom we love. If we are bold we might even wish to include all those who have served sacrificially to keep us safe in this pandemic. Either way, this year as we keep All Saints, let us recall Charles Wesley’s words:

One family, we dwell in him,

one Church, above, beneath;

though now divided by the stream,

the narrow stream of death.

May each of us dare to add this: in Christ nothing is ever truly lost. As we claim that truth, we give thanks for all the Saints and commend all Souls to his tender keeping.

Week two: Re-membering the Body

When I was a child, back in the 1970’s, I was mesmerised by the BBC broadcast of Remembrance Sunday from the Cenotaph. I was transfixed by the slow martial movement of old men and women, and the laying of the wreathes by the great and the good, as well as by the Two Minutes’ Silence. The curious choreographies and silences simply called me to stillness. To this day, I never cease to be moved by the rituals of Remembrance Sunday.

This year will be different, and yet we also live in echoes of events which affected those who gathered for the Armistice and Remembrance parades in the first years after the Great War. For, we often forget that back then communities negotiated multiple griefs: not only was the nation and Empire mourning the loss of a million dead in war, but countless others in the Spanish Flu pandemic which ripped through exhausted populations between 1918 and 1920. The trauma ran almost unimaginably deep.

The word ‘trauma’ is derived from the Ancient Greek word for hurt or wound. We live in a world marked by so very many wounds. Arguably, for the most part, the raw traumas of the First and Second World Wars have healed sufficiently for them to become scars. Like scars on a human body, the cultural scars of a society can be rich places from which to speak. The abyss of the Holocaust remains that – an abyss. However, to return to the metaphor of wound and scar, the scars the Holocaust left on the political, cultural and social body are surely powerful places from which to speak and act against all forces in our society which would allow something like it to arise again.

Trauma can be raw, however. To speak out of raw wounds can be risky. In an age when a terrorist can rip apart communities and individual lives in heartbeats, the desire to ‘strike back’ can feel overwhelming. Jesus invites us to model another way: that of the Prince of Peace.

Jesus is the Prince of Peace because he models and embodies the deep truth at the heart of God – that in the final analysis, however fraught and difficult that may be, we are called to seek reconciliation and forgiveness in our communities and within ourselves.

Violence and war typically generate more violence and war. Human history shows this. However, Jesus subverts this pattern. Jesus is, himself, the victim of violence – he is put to death – and yet in resurrection he comes not seeking revenge, but welcome, reconciliation and love. He invites us to live in a different way to that which the world typically lives by.

The concept of ‘remembrance’ holds within it the notion of ‘re-membering’. That is, of ‘bringing back together’; of taking the parts and fragments of a body and gathering it up so that it may be whole again. This season of remembrance is meaningless if it entails simply looking backwards. It invites us to gather up the fragments of loss and trauma and, slowly, surely, begin to live as a body of people in a way which models hope, openness and promise.

Now is a time for tears and a time for silence. Now is a time to hold the memory of lost loved ones before us – grandparents and great grandparents; brothers and sisters and friends. Now is the time to allow the silence to hold our ongoing shock and trauma in a world where violence is common-place. Now is the time to allow God to meet us in remembrance and draw us towards his way of promise and reconciliation, so that we never let the horror of our memories or our grief cut us off from love’s promise.

Week three: Abundance

‘For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’ (Matt. 25. 29)

Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I find that line, taken from the version of Jesus’ Parable of the Talents in St. Matthew’s Gospel, more than a little chilling. The parable is the one set for the third Sunday of November this year and, while there is insufficient space to unpack the full positive power of the parable here, I am alert to how that verse from Matthew’s gospel resonates during a time of pandemic, political and climate crisis and profound loss and grief.

Perhaps one of the things which has been foregrounded during this season of pandemic is how rapidly inequalities can be further widened or exposed by crisis. I am the chair of a Manchester-based food bank and I suspect it won’t surprise you that use of its services expanded exponentially during the initial lockdown. We expect continued high-use this winter. Equally, it has been clear that the effects of covid have impacted communities unequally. While research is ongoing into why people from global-majority communities have seen much higher incidents of death than white British ones, it is clearly the case that loss has not impacted rich and poor, young and old, north and south, or white and black equally. Loss has changed so many lives across the nation, but not in such a way that it is clear that we are all equally in this situation together.

How does God speak into this unequal reality of loss and cost? Can we say that God blesses some with abundance and condemns others to a life of misery?

The God in whom I trust is reveal in Jesus Christ. As I see it, this God does not permit or encourage such ruthlessness. Part of the power of believing in a God who comes to us as Jesus, as a human like us except without sin, is what it reveals about how we are called to live in a world where loss and suffering lie around every corner. When Jesus does not spare himself but gives himself in obedience to a path which leads to death on the cross, he surely reveals that the Christian life is a life shaped by self-giving and self-offering.

This is a life which has love at its very centre. St Paul famously reminds us that, ultimately, faith, hope and love abide and the greatest of these is love. In a recent book about the Christian life, Bishop Michael Curry, following Martin Luther King, reminds us that the opposite of love is not fear or hate. It is selfishness. For the love we are called to share, as Christians, is a love which is unstinting in its generosity.

When we face times of trial, such as those we currently face, it is tempting to pull up the drawbridge and become self-centred and self-interested. It is an understandable human instinct. Crisis can knock out our confidence in the call to be open, cherishing and community-focussed. However, the path of selfishness is not the path of God.

Over many years of work among materially-poor communities ‘abundance’ has more than one meaning. It has to be said that I’ve rarely witnessed as much generosity as I have than when in the company of those who have – in financial terms – very little. Jesus says, ‘for to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’ Perhaps it is time we examined again for ourselves, whether this world’s idea of ‘abundance’ matches God’s idea of abundance and see if we can get on board with what God is up to.

Now is a time for tears and a time for silence. Now is a time to hold the memory of lost loved ones before us – grandparents and great grandparents; brothers and sisters and friends. Now is the time to allow the silence to hold our ongoing shock and trauma in a world where violence is common-place. Now is the time to allow God to meet us in remembrance and draw us towards his way of promise and reconciliation, so that we never let the horror of our memories or our grief cut us off from love’s promise.

Week four: Christ the King

‘Many of the feasts and festivals of the Church are venerable, stretching back into antiquity. The feast of Christ the King, which falls on the final Sunday before Advent, does not fit this profile. Indeed, for many within the Church of England, the final Sunday before Advent remains ‘Stir-Up Sunday’, which takes its name from the opening line of the prayer for the day ("Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people). ‘Stir-Up Sunday’ is traditionally the day one makes one’s Christmas Pudding.

However, as this season of remembrance and reflection draws to an end, the feast of Christ the King is fitting. It was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, but it has found traction far beyond Roman Catholicism and is now a fixture on the Anglican calendar. In some ways, the date of its institution is telling. It was instituted, of course, soon after what was then the most terrible conflict in human history. The feast of Christ the King appeared in a world where new nations and ideologies – perhaps most clearly represented by the appearance of the Soviet Union – had dismantled and challenged traditional empires and monarchies. Very soon, Nazism would be on the rise. This, then, was a world of emergent doubt and critique of traditional religion, as well as of big questions about the status of the Catholic Church in Rome and beyond.

The French poet Paul Valery, writing in 1922, suggested that among the things injured by the Great War was the mind: ‘The mind has indeed been cruelly wounded … it doubts itself profoundly.’ The extent to which that assessment is true is moot. What is certain is that the feast of Christ the King spoke into a world negotiating deep trauma and profound change.

In essence, when we keep the feast of Christ the King we say that it is Christ’s sovereignty that has the last word. Though we may live in a world scarred by tragedy and the depredations and grubby compromises of human politics, the failures of this world are not the last word. Jesus Christ is.

The Kingship of Jesus Christ, I think, holds an extraordinary power to speak into our current challenges and travails because Christ’s Kingship is not based on lording it over us. The throne on high to which he is lifted should be read through the prism of his subversive kingship. His crown is made of thorns and his seat of authority is either a manger or a cross. He is not the child of privilege or power, but a child born of a couple who were little more than peasants. His kingship is ultimately shown through a willingness to embody love without limit. He offers himself for the sake of the world and redeems it. In his resurrection, lies the promise of reconciliation and the fullness of life.

In the midst of our losses and anxieties, hope kindles. I have no doubt that this time of pandemic and great uncertainty will pass. We shall find the new day. I also sense that that new day will be rather different to the days we knew before the pandemic. I am also sure that Jesus Christ – the King of the Universe – will be in that new day, inviting us on into service, grace and love. That is the nature of his Kingship: it has been tested in death and tragedy and invites us to join him as friends seeking reconciliation and hope.

 

Rachel Mann is an Anglican priest, poet, writer and broadcaster based in South Manchester. Her latest books are Love’s Mysteries: The Body, Grief, Precariousness and God (Canterbury Press 2020) and In the Bleak Midwinter: Advent and Christmas with Christina Rossetti (Canterbury Press 2019).