Newly mustered Brown students march through Soldiers Arch on their way to fight in World War II. The arch is a memorial to their departed fellows from the First World War.
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This sermon was preached at 10am on 9 November 2014 at S. Stephen’s Church. There was a Solemn Requiem and Act of Remembrance in observance of Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday falling nearest to Armistice Day (November 11). Music was a polyphonic setting of the plainchant Missa pro defunctis by Giovanni Francesco Anerio. For more information on Brown during WWI, see this entry in the Encyclopedia Brunoniana.
Collect: O Almighty God, grant we beseech thee, that we, who here do honor to the memory of those who have died in the service of their country, may be so inspired by the spirit of their love and fortitude that, forgetting all selfish and unworthy motives, we may live only to thy glory, to the service of all mankind and in the interests of peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Just around the corner from here, a few steps up Thayer Street, there is a monumental stone arch. It doesn’t cry out what its purpose is, and you might be forgiven for passing by and not noticing. But next time you’re there, look up. You’ll see an eagle with outspread wings surmounting a plain pediment and a classical architrave. The archway itself is flanked by wreaths. Just above it, two angels bear this message: “To the men of Brown who in the world war gave their lives that freedom may endure.”
Even though the United States did not formally enter the War until 1917, students and faculty began volunteering for service as early as 1915. In 1915 and 1916, the campus raised funds to send two ambulances to France, and a number of students volunteered to go over with them. In 1917, Brown’s ROTC was reorganized as the Student Army Training Corps, and the whole University shifted course to prepare for war. Campus buildings were transformed into barracks and mess halls and the academic calendar was reordered to carry on through the summer, giving training in tactics and engineering to continue the fight in Europe.
By the end of the war, some nineteen hundred students, alumni, faculty, and staff had served in the armed forces, forty-one of whom gave their lives. It’s a chilling number, but small compared to larger universities in this country and to all sorts of schools and institutions in Europe. Oxford University’s graduating class of 1913, for example, lost 31% of its members to death in combat. If that number seems high, remember that on the first day of the Battle of the Somme — the first day! — England alone lost more than 60,000 soldiers. The battle would eventually claim more than one million lives. By some estimates, the Great War involved 65 million military participants, with military deaths approaching ten million. That’s a rate of nearly one in six.
Today is Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday falling nearest to the signing of the armistice which ended the War, on November 11, 1918. This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the war, and remembrance celebrations are marked with special significance. But what is it that we remember? And why do we do it? The last remaining veteran of the War died in 2012. Most of the nations involved are now allies or partners of one sort or another. Is there any purpose left in continuing to remember?
Yes there is. On Remembrance Day we remember first of all those who have died. It is fitting that the Armistice occurred so close to All Souls Day, when we have the prayers of the dead already echoing in our minds, prayers which we repeat today. They gave their lives for their countries. Whether they were on the right side or the wrong side, whether we agree with their politics or not, they did give their lives in service to their country. More than this, many of them gave their lives for their friends. As many veterans remark, in foxholes, soldiers fight less for nations and more for the person crouching next to them. In the face of such malice and destruction as war brings, memory of home and loved ones can fade. In those moments, sometimes the only link a solider has with humanity and with the promise of goodness is his comrade in arms. The rest of us are amazed to read stories of courage and valor in which a soldier rescues his fellows, or saves their lives by spending his own: for the sake of people whom he has known only a short while, and whom he would likely never have met otherwise. We remember their sacrifice, and we give thanks: thanks for such clear examples as these, which echo the sacrifice Our Lord made for all of us.
We remember their sacrifice. We remember also that it was nations that sent them to war, nations made of people just like us. We are justly proud of their sacrifice. But we must never forget that their blood is on the hands of those whom they were sworn to serve, just as much as it is on the hands of their enemies. We remember them, so that as a nation we will never again allow ourselves to be dragged into carnage such as they faced. We remember, so that we may repent, and commit ourselves anew to the work of building peace.
Sacrifice and repentance. These are two reasons that we continue to remember, long after the last veterans are gone. But more than their sacrifice, more even than our responsibility to build peace, we remember their names. We remember that they were persons, like you and me: with the same fears and hopes, the same families, the same aspirations. Why? Why fixate on their humanity? Because in remembering, especially remembering in prayer, we build a kind of communion with them. We refuse to allow death and destruction to have the upper hand. Though they felt alone and abandoned in the barbed wire fields and mustard gas, we refuse to leave them there. We remember them.
A friend of mine once visited a war museum in Washington DC. As he went through the rooms, he came upon a video with interviews of veterans. One was asked how his faith played a role in his survival through the war. He replied candidly, saying, “It didn’t. I could not pray in that hell.” My friend was moved by this, and went on to the next room. There he saw a young lady clearly on a school field trip, pressed against the glass of a diorama of the trenches. She was very quiet, and my friend noticed her hands together. She was praying. When she finished, my friend asked, “What are you doing?” She replied, “That man said he could not pray in the trenches. So I am praying here for him.”
To remember certainly means to recall information. But more than this, there is a way in which remembering literally re-members, restores limbs which had been severed. Today we remember all those who died outside the normal realm of human affection and society, who lost their lives in the horrible machine of war. We remember them, and we pray for their peace, knowing that in their peace is also finally our own.
We remember their sacrifice, we remember in penitence, and we remember for the sake of knitting together the communion of the living and the dead. There is also one more kind of remembrance we will engage in today. As the music of the Sanctus concludes, and the celebrant carries on with the Great Thanksgiving, we will all remember the sacrifice of Our Lord’s own body and blood, made for the forgiveness of sins. In continuing this perpetual memory, the Holy Spirit descends upon us, and we find present in our midst the Lord Jesus himself, under the signs of bread and wine. We make our communions, and find that we are brought into communion with him, together with all the redeemed from every age. This remembrance is the summit and culmination of all our remembering. In this sacramental memory, we enjoy a foretaste of the coming kingdom: in which God shall be judge of all people, and we shall beat our swords into plow shares, and our spears into pruning hooks; where nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall we learn war anymore. The foretaste of that kingdom is sweet, and we long for its final consummation.
In the meantime, let us resolve to remember: that when that day comes, we may greet it as one people, united in prayer, restored by grace, ready at last for the peace of God.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.