About Me

My photo
Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Monday, 13 November 2017


Some of you will have travelled through Belgium and northern France across Flanders’ fields and the level plains of Picardy.  In high summer, the yellow corn fields blush with poppies. It is a smiling, happy landscape.

 But then you pass the war graves: rows of marble slabs aligned with mathematical precision, not golden like the lives of young men eager with expectation, not red like the passionate furies of the war they went to fight, but white and stark and cold with death. And you remember how those killing fields were ploughed up and liquified by engines of death, in the collective madness the world found it had walked into, the Great War that “slew half the seed of Europe one by one”. Sleep-walked into, indeed, a narcotic association that fits the black-shadowed poppy whose very profile seems to “hang in sleep”. 
A century ago the Great War still had a year to run. By then the association of poppies to the memory of the fallen had been made. We know how it was inspired by the poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we l
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae its Canadian author captured the public mood. The point about the poppy was not just its colour that seemed to reflect the contradictory experiences of war: its passion and perplexity, its pain and its pride.  It was that poppies were the first flowers to grow in the churned-up soil where soldiers fell and the mud in which they lay. 

Fifty years earlier, the historian Lord Macaulay, writing about a 17th century battle in Flanders, foreshadowed the symbolism. “The next summer” he wrote, “the soil, fertilised by twenty thousand corpses, broke forth into millions of poppies. The traveller who saw that vast sheet of rich scarlet could [imagine] that the prediction of the Hebrew prophet was [being] accomplished, that the earth was disclosing her blood, and refusing to cover the slain.”  
“Flowers preach to us, if we will hear” says Christina Rossetti in one of her poems. She is drawing from today’s gospel: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Flowers stand for larger things says Jesus: good, noble, inspiring kingdom-shaped truths in the case of lilies, more paradoxical realities in the case of poppies. For the poppy is freighted with conflict, bloodshed, loss and lament, pride, our duty of care; our anger at this waste of human life. In classical myth it stands for the sleep of death, but can also represent immortality. So by extension, it symbolises our hope for those who have died, and our pleas for the better future we crave, our longings to live without fear of what tomorrow will bring as Jesus says in the reading.  
A flower is perhaps the best symbol we have of a truly innocent way of being alive. It grows because it can simply be itself. It flowers to please nothing and no-one apart from its own unconscious instinct. It realises its own life artlessly, effortlessly, without having to try. Mother Julian would have said it exists because God loves it. So it points to a love that is boundless in its possibilities. If only we could see it for ourselves, if only our world could live like that: joyfully, spontaneously, unafraid, open to the sky and the rain, the breezes and the sunshine!  For then, Jesus seems to say, we would be close to the kingdom of heaven. We would live and breathe not out of suspicion but out of trust. We would not succumb to worry but be sustained by a deep and lasting hope. We would feel after God and find him, would understand that we came from God and are going to God. 

So, could the simple poppy and the associations we make to it lead us into a new vision of life? “Strive first for the kingdom of God and its righteousness” says Jesus. That’s as true in armed conflict as it is in every other walk of life. It defines who and what we aspire to be: human beings who live and die purposefully, for good ends, not in vain. War is only just if it is in pursuit of those good ends: freedom and justice and the welfare of the planet and the defence of the powerless and victims. The young men and women of today who sign up to serve in the armed forces know that they may find themselves in some faraway theatre of war, or ambushed by terrorists, or helping victims of cruelty or natural disaster. They need to know why they are there, and how it will contribute to the world’s safety, how it will help establish a more peaceable order where human beings can make a better life for themselves. To be able to think these thoughts and frame an ethical and spiritual response to the challenges they pose is what makes for goodness and keeps integrity intact.  

All of us need to be alive to these questions if we are to remember well and honour the fallen. Only then do we do justice to their sacrifice. McCrae’s poem ends on a combative note where the poppy is not just a symbol of memory and pride but also of the intention to strike down the enemy.  If you had just watched your friend die in the mud of Flanders, you would understand that. But we know what the true enemy is: pride, lust, avarice, greed, wrath, envy and sloth, the seven deadly sins that stalk the earth and degrade our collective and personal lives? Unchecked, they will destroy us in the end. Isn't this what our brothers’ blood cries out from the ground where the fallen have lain and the poppies grow? We need to be worthy of them and construct the better world for which they lived and died. On this solemn day, the poppy can stand for our resolve in Christ crucified and risen to arouse ourselves to do good and serve well, to heal the wounds of history, and keep hope alive. 

St Mary the Virgin, Oxford
Remembrance Sunday 2017 (Revelation 22.1-5, Matthew 6.25-34)

No comments:

Post a Comment