October 2014

Learning from history

We are soon to embark upon the period leading up to the end of the church’s year when we are encouraged to look back. We begin on November 1st with All Saints Day when we remember all saints of all times from all places. The following day is All Souls Day when we remember all those who have died. This year, All Souls Day is on a Sunday and this will provide an opportunity for all those whom we love but are no more to be commemorated at a church service: details of this are elsewhere in this issue. And then, of course, on Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day we remember all those from all countries who have died in war.

This is a rich cycle of solemn celebration and it has so much for all of us. Which is why I feel it is so sad that for so many people the most important thing at this time of year appears to be the vacuous commercialised pumpkin-fest known as Halloween, a baleful transatlantic import devoid of meaning or significance. End of rant.

The danger of remembering is that it can encourage us to look inwards and to live in the past: certainly, for Christians, the important ting is that we look outwards and to the future. And it would indeed be senseless to look back on the past unless we are prepared to learn from it. Our history is important because we grow from it, and we cannot do that if we do not know anything about it. The world is even now suffering because politicians are insensitive to this basic fact and seem to assume that history began the moment they took office.

Looking at all these various celebrations, there are lessons which all of us need to note.

Taking All Saints Day first, we commemorate the extraordinary variety and number of men and women who in an extraordinary variety of ways enriched the lives of so many people. But we also remind ourselves that they were not born saints: they became saints. Saints are all ordinary people who did extraordinary things. And they are certainly ordinary with all the faults and failings which we all have: St Paul was probably overfond of the words ‘I’ and ‘me’, St Jerome had a filthy temper and St Francis did not score too highly on the ‘honour your mother and father’ front Yet, their lives were transformed by their knowledge of God’s love and forgiveness and they in turn transformed the lives of countless others. We should not look at them as hopeless examples beyond our ability to follow: our lives can also be transformed and we can transform the lives of others. All Saints Day should be a huge encouragement to all of us to see how we, ordinary people, with our faults and failings can also do extraordinary things.

All Souls Day is an opportunity for us all to remember all those who have gone before us. It is also a reminder for all Christians that life is eternal and love cannot die: that death is only an horizon and an horizon is only the limit of our sight. Whenever we join together in a communion service, we are uniting ourselves with all of Christ’s church in this world and the next, and All Souls Day is a wonderful occasion to remind ourselves of that as we remember all those whom we love.

And then there is Remembrance Day itself, an especially poignant occasion this year as we commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War. Yet it is surely meaningless for us to enter into that commemoration unless we are determined to do all that we can to end conflict on no matter what scale. One of the things I doubtless say too often is that there cannot be peace between nations unless there is peace within nations, and there cannot be peace within a nation unless there is peace between the various communities within that nations, and there cannot be peace between communities unless there is peace within each community, and that community can be a town, a village, a church group, a workplace, a school or a family. So it is pointless for us to commemorate all those who have died because men could or would not settle their differences other than through acts of violence unless we are prepared in no mater how small a way to do what we can to end conflict between people. That is why on Remembrance Day this year I am replacing the service of Evening Prayer with a Service of Peace and Reconciliation – a simple service which will, I hope, encourage all of us to work for peace and reconciliation – a task we can all do and which we all should do.

Looking back is good: it teaches us how we reached the point we find ourselves in now: but we need to learn those lessons and apply them in the way we lead our lives: otherwise our commemorations are simply empty and sentimental.