One hundred years to the day when the Great War ended we find ourselves in this church to pray and to remember. And here we are invited to look at a rare, if not unique, type of memorial to the fallen. Most parish churches will have plaques or stone monuments in their churchyards; we, instead, have an altar. At the front of the church, in the most sacred part of it, you can see the high altar. It is not clear why the Reverend Mahoney, my predecessor at that time, and the people of our town decided to commemorate the victims of World War I in this way, but regardless of reasons, there you have it, Houghton Regis’ first war memorial. Of course, there will be those who might think that using an altar for remembrance witnesses to a gone-by era when Christianity held more relevance in British society; and other may even smirk at a public subscription for an altar as a clever trick from the vicar to get new church furniture for free. But looking at it, our altar seems to draw a parallel between the death and resurrection of the Our Lord Jesus Christ and the suffering of the war victims it silently remembers. Looking at it, the altar can give us few clues about what we do today.
Who do we remember? To this question the altar simply answers by showing us a crown of thorns on its front (which in all honesty looks rather more like a wreath). It reminds us first of thorns which were placed by the soldiers on Jesus’s head as they mocked him, and then it reminds us of the struggles of those who went into the battlefields, whether voluntarily or conscripted, to be surrounded by the barbed wire of the trenches. Of the first the prophet Isaiah says, ‘He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.’ (Isaiah 53:7) Of the others people of the time thought that they looked like ‘being driven like cattle to the slaughter house… Fodder for the guns.’ (Mass Observation Project 1939)
How do we remember? We call to mind stories and events which shaped the history of our world. At Mass we follow the command of Jesus at the Last Supper, ‘Do this in remembrance of me’; we make present at the altar the self-sacrifice Jesus made for us, and at the same altar today we call to mind the names, the accounts, and the sacrifice of those who died in war. There is not enough time at this service to recount even a fraction of their stories, and yet the words of Jesus we have just read, ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’, and the words of the Kohima Epitaph ‘When You go home, tell them of us and say, For your tomorrow, we gave our today’ seem to converge at the Lord’s table.
Why do we remember? We recall two sacrifices; the first so that Jesus redeeming power may affect our lives in a personal way and give us peace; while we recall the second sacrifice so that it may inspire us to pledge ourselves to the pursuit of peace, that the death of so many people might not have been in vain.
So, who do we remember? Those who laid down their lives for the greater good of others. How do we do it? By making present, by calling to mind their stories. Why do we do it? So that their sacrifices may mould us into a people of reconciliation and peace.
Houghton Regis’ first war memorial speaks to us of two sacrifices. The realities of these sacrifices were marked by suffering and pain, their legacies – if properly remembered – are the seeds of new life and of a better society.
from whom all thoughts of truth and peace proceed:
kindle, we pray, in the hearts of all, the true love of peace
and guide with your pure and peaceable wisdom
those who take counsel for the nations of the earth
that in tranquillity your kingdom may go forward,
till the earth is filled with the knowledge of your love;through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.