Well known verses from the second chapter of the book of Isaiah (repeated in the book of Micah) are sometimes used as a canticle in the Divine Office, in Morning Prayer which we say at the beginning of Mass in our religious communities: ‘They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks’ (Isaiah 2:4). This overall passage, portraying a future vision of peace centred on the mountain of the Lord, is always worth remembering at this time of year, and on this weekend of both Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday. The prophet is looking forward to a time when weapons designed to kill people will be converted into agricultural use. Remembrance Sunday is a time when we are able to recall how far we are from the vision coming about. We are a bit nearer: both the Church and many parts of the world are, at least on paper, more negative about war and fighting wars than in the past. Part of the reason for this is the horrific character of modern warfare, particularly as it has developed in the last century or so. As human beings have found ways of killing more people more quickly (and often more cheaply) this does cause a certain amount of revulsion; but there is a very long way to go.
It occurred to me recently, and I remarked on this in a homily a few weeks ago, that there is one image associated with ‘remembrance’ which is profoundly disturbing and symbolic of the way in which war can still dominate our culture. In many war memorials constructed after the Great War a century ago, as shown here, it was decided to superimpose a large medieval sword on the Cross. Apparently this is sometimes called the ‘Cross of Sacrifice’ – the picture here is from Ypres. On one level it must have been someone’s stroke of genius, noticing that they are more or less the same shape. The Cross is of course originally a weapon of torture and execution, of a particularly gruesome kind. For Catholics it usually bears the image of the body of our Saviour, who by his death on the Cross redeemed humanity and changed the course of human history: for some other Christians an empty Cross without his Body is preferable. Because, through the event of the crucifixion, evil and sin are defeated, for Christians this symbol of torture and violence has become a badge of triumph, a symbol which we kiss and venerate, and display profusely in our churches and homes; we sign ourselves with the cross as a reminder of our faith, as a sign of our identity as Christians.
In the cross bearing a sword something else happens. The sword, far from being beaten into a ploughshare, displaces the Saviour. The God of peace who saves us by his blood disappears; the original sign of torture and violence is joined by another symbol of death, a sword designed to kill people. How, a hundred years ago, did Christian leaders stand by and let this happen, presumably blessing war memorials of this kind?
For on Remembrance Sunday symbols are important – they speak volumes. In the study of worship and liturgy it is often said that a symbol which needs to be explained ceases to be effective – you shouldn’t have to do so; it should be recognisable. What that also means is that when you try to understand or question a symbol you often come up against irrationality. A recent feature of Remembrance Sunday and the weeks leading up to it, which I don’t remember at all when I was a child in the 60s and 70s, is the hysteria and intolerance surrounding the wearing of red poppies sold by the British Legion, and the accusation that those of us who choose not to wear one, or who wear a white poppy, are somehow dishonouring those who have been killed in war. In my experience trying to argue about this with people doesn’t get you anywhere – reasoned discussion becomes yet another casualty of war. You can see how the sword stuck on top of a Cross does its work.
Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day are important. For Catholics, the most important thing to do this weekend is to pray for the souls in purgatory of those killed in the wars of the last century, both servicemen and women and civilians. It also needs to be about peace (like Peace Sunday in January, a curiously less popular observance) and proclaiming Christian teaching, which has become sharper in the last century, that war is evil and wrong, and not glorious or noble. It is because much of the symbolism and ritual of Remembrance Sunday gives a very different message that many Christians and others feel distanced from how badly so much of it is done – the marching, the gun salutes, the display in the Albert Hall, and some of the hymns and prayers which are used. Like the sword stuck on a Cross, much of this does not impart the Christian message; and it’s a bad way to honour the dead or pray for them. As we pray for those who have died in war this weekend it’s essential that we are primarily loyal to Christian teachings.