“Who is left among you? ” Haggai 2:2
Remembering is something personal; even if people are present at the same event, each will remember it differently. The most powerful remembering is not what is written in books, or what appears on our television screens, but what is recalled in the stories of individual people. It is the individual stories that most affect us, that most capture our imaginations. Remembering individuals makes remembrance personal.
On the Somme, near the village of Mametz, there is a little war graves cemetery tucked away behind a copse of trees. On 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, men from the 8th and 9th Battalions of the Devonshire Regiment came up out of their trench and were cut down by machine gun fire. One hundred and sixty soldiers died there; they were buried on 4th July, in their own trench. The inscription on the stone at the entrance to the cemetery says, “The Devonshires held this trench, The Devonshires hold it still”.
The cemetery is a tranquil and deeply moving place. Each time I have been there we have read, “Before Action”, a poem by Noel Hodgson. Lieutenant W.N. Hodgson, son of the Bishop of Saint Edmundsbury and Ipswich, was a member of the 9th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. He lies buried with his men.
Walking along the lines of gravestones in July this year, reading the names, there was a moment of realisation. “Clark, Davey, Davies, Webber these were Devonshire names, boys at the Devon school I attended had these names. The names became real men with West Country accents, whose only wish was to be back at their farms and villages, or their seaside towns and fishing ports. I stood with tears in my eyes.
Words from the prophet Haggai acknowledge remembrance as something personal, the Lord says to Haggai, “Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people”. The Lord directs his words to individual people; it is individuals who are to do the remembering, individuals who are to recall the former times.
Remembering is personal, but can also be painful. Walk through the cemeteries along the Western Front, and it can be overwhelming. The loss of life in such small areas of battle slips beyond comprehension. More easily understood is the memorial at Poperinge to the seventy men who were ‘shot at dawn’ in the grounds of the town hall. The overwhelming majority of those executed were suffering from severe psychological problems, yet the men were treated with little mercy; after courts martial, they were executed by members of their own platoon. Standing at the doors of the condemned cells, reading words engraved on the cell room walls by those awaiting their fate, is a disturbing experience.
The potential for remembering to cause pain is recognized in the words of Haggai. “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” asks Haggai Chapter 2 Verse 3. The most sacred place for Jewish people has been reduced to seeming “as nothing”; to remember the past is something painful.
Remembrance encourages perseverance. Next year, it will be a hundred years since the outbreak of the First World War, why is it important still to remember? Because in remembrance of the past there are lessons for the present; encouragement to seek the right ways and to avoid the mistakes that cost so many, many lives. Out of the desire never to repeat the Great Wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945, there came the Europe we have today
In the days of Haggai, remembrance encouraged perseverance on the part of the people of Israel. Chapter 2 Verse 4 says, “Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord”.
Remembrance is personal; it can be painful; it encourages perseverance in seeking the right way, and it helps us preserve what is good. Haggai Chapter 2 Verse 9, says “The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts”. The Lord promises the people of Israel that their remembering is not just about a recall of the past, but will lead to bright, new times.
Remembrance Sunday, if it is to be Biblical, must always be not just a recall, but an anticipation., not just a view back, but a looking forward. Recalling the sacrifice of the past, it must lead to a commitment to a different future.