This morning’s Remembrance Service was the best attended of the four I have conducted at the Prestonfield War Memorial within our parish. What was most interesting about it was the people who were there – the sheer variety. There were older people whose parents had paid for the memorial decades ago, and who remembered the families of the people whose names we read out. There were younger people from babes in arms, through primary school age to young students in their twenties. These included some from countries who were on ‘the other side’ of the major conflicts being remembered, and this confirmed for me the need to see these commemorations as more than Remembrance.
It seemed to me that there are, in fact, at least four words beginning ‘Re’ that should mark these occasions.
Of course Remembrance should be the first of these words. Looking to the past and recalling the events and people is a first step. Remembrance leads to thanksgiving for sacrifices made and without remembering what took place in the past we cannot learn from it. Remembrance of courage, of loss, of global scale, of the depth of suffering: all these put us in touch with the past and allow it to touch us inside in a way that few things have the power to do. Remembrance helps us to see the present with fresh eyes.
Repentance is a Gospel word and, contrary to common use does not primarily mean being sorry for doing something in the past. It means to change direction. Repentance means to turn around and travel another way, take another path. Standing in front of a War Memorial with the names of those who died in conflict engraved upon it should make us want to travel on a pathway that does not lead to war and death. We always have to ask, is there a better way?
When we have people of different nations round the memorial, especially people whom we have always thought of as being on ‘the other side,’ it opens the mind to see things in new ways for we begin to see what we do at such events through the eyes of others. Is what we do and say more likely to turn this ‘enemy’ into a ‘friend’ as we mourn our common loss, or are we in danger of giving the conflicts of the past the power to destroy our relationships in the present? The Memorial must become a place for reconciliation where remembrance of things past teaches us that the best way of avoiding war is to turn our enemies into our friends.
Each Remembrance Day has its own particular impact upon us. From year to year I refresh my understanding of the past by reading something about it – this year marks 70 years from the second battle of El Alamein in which my late Father-in-law participated and I read an extract of ‘All Hell Let Loose’ by Max Hastings – and by listening to the stories told during the Festival of Remembrance broadcast on the Saturday night. Stories of bravery and loss bring home to us the personal experiences of war and its cost. So it is that, just as we cannot step into the same river twice, we are different people coming to the Memorial each year. And we leave different people. The corporate experience of shared remembrance leaves its mark upon us and we can return to the world of ‘normal’ life with a renewed sense of hope and responsibility to make the world a better and a safer place for our children and grandchildren.