A Symbol Requiring a Response image

A Symbol Requiring a Response

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I’m ashamed to admit that Remembrance Day has never meant very much to me. In part this is because it falls on my birthday, so the date is linked in my mind more with parties and presents than reflection and remembrance.

The deeper and more enduring reason, however, is that being of (relatively!) tender years, I find it quite an empty remembrance: I don’t have any relatives or friends to remember from the Second World War, let alone the First. I might say a prayer for the friends’ sons currently deployed in Afghanistan, but with no lost relative to recall, I stand in respectful silence, but remember nothing. And I suspect I am not alone. It has been suggested that many of us nowadays wear a poppy at this time of year because we ought to; because it marks us out as good people. Perhaps some are wearing it not so much as a prompt to remembrance or a mark of respect, but because of huge national peer pressure. I admit that this is partly my own motivation, though there is a strand of a desire to express support of our troops currently putting their lives on the line for our freedom.
 
Perhaps, though, the failure is not so much with me as with the way in which 11 November is presented. Recalling to mind specific members of the dead is helpful for the bereaved, and acknowledging the vast numbers who died is a good way to honour their sacrifice, but if that is all we are doing, we’re missing the point. The national day of remembrance should not just be about keeping fallen service men and women alive in our hearts, but about taking some action.
 
Hebrews 11 and 12 give us a more useful model of remembrance. The roll call of the dead, rivalling that of any war memorial, does not invite us merely to look back and reflect with gratitude on those who died that we might live, but urges us to action: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,” let us not merely stand in silence for one minute once a year, but “let us throw off everything that hinders, and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (Hebrews 12:1)
 
The ‘memory stones’ erected by the Israelites after crossing the Jordan into the promised land were there not just to remind them and future generations of a past act of God, but “so that you might always fear the LORD your God” (Joshua 4:24). They were a symbol requiring a response.
 
Similarly, the tassels worn by Jews on the corners of their garments were not there as a mark of their holiness but “so you will remember all the commands of the LORD, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by chasing after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes” (Numbers 14:38-39); a symbol requiring a response.
 
And then, of course, there’s Calvary.
 
The cross forms the ultimate symbol of remembrance: an emblem reminding us of another who died to buy our freedom. We look back with gratitude and remember our forgiveness, but one of the great Easter hymns reminds us that this symbol requires not just gratitude, but an active response:

May I be willing, Lord, to bear
Daily my cross for Thee;
Even Thy cup of grief to share,
Thou hast borne all for me.

Lest I forget Gethsemane,
Lest I forget Thine agony;
Lest I forget Thy love for me,
Lead me to Calvary.1

When we stand in silence this Sunday, remembering the dead is fine, and is a good way to honour their sacrifice, but if that is all we are doing, we’re missing the point. It’s not just about keeping them alive in our hearts. We remember in order to act. In part this means working to ensure that, so far as it depends upon us, such carnage never happens again. We should also treat our freedom with the respect it deserves, neither squandering it nor underestimating it, and we should remember the courage shown by those who faced death for the sake of what they believed in – they did not seek to kill in order to advance their cause, but were willing to die if that’s what it took to defend it.

Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, enduring the trials, scorning their shame, and pressing on towards the goal, not of a little, fragile freedom for an earthly country, but of the “kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28).

Footnotes

  • 1 Jennie Evelyn Hussey, 1921

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