St Francis, Terriers - 3 before Advent (Remembrance - 12.11.2017)
Tony Dickinson

“ Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.” (Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.) Those are the closing words of one of the Ph.D. thesis of one of the greatest philosophers of the last century, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Much of it was written while he was a soldier in the Austrian army on front-line service against the Russians, and later the Italians, between 1916 and 1918. His words have given rise to a great deal of debate. Some have seen them as a denial that philosophy has anything to do with what cannot be observed or measured, but in view of the circumstances in which the book was written – and the impact of the war on Wittgenstein’s family – I’m inclined to wonder whether he was speaking out of deep personal experience. Ludwig himself survived the First World War pretty well unscathed, despite a military career that exposed him to enormous dangers, but one of his brothers committed suicide when the soldiers he commanded deserted en masse towards the end of the war, and another, Paul, a brilliant concert pianist, lost his right arm on the Eastern front in 1914. Perhaps those were matters “whereof [he] could not speak”. Perhaps the depth of human suffering in war was for Wittgenstein one of the matters “whereof one must be silent.”

So, for us today, as we reflect on the immensity of the human tragedy represented by two world wars and the innumerable conflicts since 1945, silence is the only appropriate response. The figures for the dead and wounded in the last century’s wars are mind-numbing. The loss to friends, parents, partners, children – sometimes to whole communities (think of the “Pals” battalions, the young men who went in their thousands from the cities and mill-towns of the north of England, from Belfast, Glasgow and Edinburgh, and who were wiped out on the battlefields of the Somme) – the loss to them is immeasurable. And that is only part of the story.

When we were on holiday in Germany in the summer, we visited Lübeck. In the Middle Ages Lübeck was one of the great trading cities of Northern Europe, one of the jewels in the crown of the Hanseatic League. On the eve of Palm Sunday 1942 it suffered the same fate that Coventry had suffered sixteen months earlier, the same fate that was to befall Hamburg the following summer – and Dresden three years later. The great church of St Mary, where the young J.S. Bach had listened to the playing of Dietrich Buxtehude, was gutted. As the church’s south tower burned, its great bells crashed to the ground, where they remain as a memorial to the destruction of that night. Two-thirds of the buildings of Lübeck were destroyed or damaged. Three hundred were killed, nearly eight hundred injured, and fifteen thousand people lost their homes.

Such a story could be told a hundred times over, by towns and cities in this country, in Germany, in France, Italy, Greece, the Balkans, Russia (especially Russia, with her more than 20 million dead) – and further afield. On Friday I attended the annual Remembrance ceremony at the Grammar School. Before the school gathered there was an additional, more private, act of remembering, as stone plaques were dedicated in memory of the school’s two VCs, Frederick Youens, killed on the Western Front in 1917, and Ian Fraser, who won his VC for bringing his crew back alive after successfully completing a daring operation in the naval war against Japan. From Bengal to Hiroshima, and across the Pacific, people of many races suffered and died, whether in the service of the Allies or of the Axis powers. How can we speak of their suffering? How can we begin to make sense of it?

We can start by disentangling the meaning of what St Paul writes to a congregation in northern Greece from the myth that has grown up around it. One of the wackier ideas to arise in American Christianity is “the rapture”, the idea that before the second coming of Jesus all those who believe in him will be whisked off to heaven before disaster overtakes the earth. Some of you may have read part or all of the “Left Behind” series of novels which imagine what that time might be like. Those books are an awful warning about the dangers of taking scriptural texts out of their context – and about the shedloads of money it is possible to make by doing that. The passage which we heard as our first reading is one of the key texts cited in support of “the rapture”. It talks, after all, about the faithful, both the living and the dead, being “caught up in the clouds… to meet the Lord in the air.”

But the controlling image is not of a sort of scriptural “beam me up, Scotty”, with everyone heading back to safety in the star-ship “Enterprise”. The controlling image is that of a first-century state visit, the arrival by the governor, or even the Emperor, at a town or city in his domain. When the ruler and his entourage are sighted, the trumpet is sounded and the chief citizens and the local magistrates – in High Wycombe terms, the Mayor and the Charter Trustees – go out to meet him and escort him into the city. What Paul is saying in this passage is that when Jesus comes, not just the local bigwigs but everyone, an “everyone” that includes both the living and the dead, will be in the group which goes out to meet and welcome him.

So we can have hope. In the face of the unspeakable, in the face of division and suffering, Christ’s rule heals and includes. Christ’s rule overrides all the bitterness, all the hatreds stoked up by those who profit from conflict and destruction. Christ’s rule overrides even the division between the living and the dead, so that we and all those, of whatever race or nation, whom we remember today – all are part of that great throng which waits to welcome the Lord when he returns. As Wilfred Owen recognised a hundred years ago, “Christ is in no man’s land”. It is there in the desolation that we must go out to seek him, among those who might be considered, in human terms, as enemies. It is there, amid the clamour of tongues and the discordant voices, that we find God speaking in the silence of our hearts. And to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit…