Lest we forget: what do we remember?


Scripture: Remembrance, All Souls, Matthew 25: 1-13 Nigel Bunce

Lest we forget

The catch-phrase of Remembrance Day is “Lest we forget”. We remember those who served or lost their lives in recent or long ago wars. In Canada, we remember especially the sacrifice (making holy) of WWI. It’s an important part of our nation-building mythology. It’s when Canada changed from being a mere colony to an independent nation.

That makes our remembrance a little tricky. In some people’s minds, it leads to glorification of past conflicts. Personally, I tend to focus on the lost and shattered lives that always accompany war. That is reflected in our two hymns this morning. We opened with, “O God of love, O power of peace, make wars through all the world to cease …” We will end with “Let there be peace on earth … and let it begin with me.”

I cannot emphasize enough my gratitude that I, and my children, have been spared military service. Therefore, for me, “Lest we forget” has a double meaning. We must never forget those who offered their lives in the service of this country. They made possible the freedoms that we enjoy today.

But “Lest we forget” also reminds us that peace is a fragile flower. We must pray and sing to God to “make wars through all the world to cease”. That’s because deadly conflicts exist elsewhere as I speak.

Civil wars

Perhaps the worst of them are civil wars, as Margaret MacMillan wrote last month in the Globe & Mail. In our time, we think of the civil wars in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Syria, Libya … 

Civil wars pit citizen against citizen, and family member against family member. Lifelong friends become mortal – in the literal sense – enemies. These enmities are hard to erase when the fighting ends. MacMillan wrote that the American Civil War cost more lives than all those lost in subsequent American wars.

More than 150 years later, the scars are still not healed. Confederate flags and statues still arouse passions, and Black racism still infects the US. Identity politics, in which the ‘other side’ becomes demonized as inherently evil, is a slippery slope that can, she writes, lead to civil war if left unchecked. Our neighbours to the south are in a dangerous moment. “The wrath of human sin, restrain; give peace O God, give peace again.”

Remembrance on All Souls Day

On a less sombre note, today we also celebrate All Souls Day. That “Lest we forget” focusses on family members and friends who have departed this life ahead of us. The Book of Wisdom tells us that it is unwise to think that death was the end, a disaster. No. Their souls are in the hands of God. God has not forgotten them. Nor should we.

Col. John McCrae’s famous poem, “In Flanders Fields”, echoes the same theme. Short days ago, his friends “loved and were loved, but now [they] lie in Flanders’ field.” Yet he has not forgotten them. The wild poppies of northern Europe blow in the fields of Flanders, in northern France. Even in beautifully manicured military cemeteries, the wild poppies sneak in. They remind us that even amid the remembrance of death, life cannot be denied, a core belief of our Christian faith.

Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids

To end with, a word about today’s Gospel. The parable draws on a tradition in Biblical times. A bridegroom and his family came to the bride’s home during the evening to begin the marriage feast. The bride and her bridesmaids waited to greet them with lighted lamps. I read somewhere that this tradition continues today in some Palestinian villages.

In Jesus’ story, some of the bridesmaids forgot to fill their lamps with oil. When the bridegroom’s arrival was announced, their lamps had gone out, so they couldn’t join the welcoming party. By the time that they had gone to get more oil, the party was under way and they were locked out.

We can never know how Jesus (or Matthew) meant us to interpret this parable. Here’s the usual explanation. The parable illustrates the 1st century Jewish concept that the end of the age was near. Everyone must prepare for Judgement Day.

In this explanation, Christ is the Bridegroom. The bridesmaids are Christian believers waiting for the Second Coming. Some are ready, some are not, to join the marriage feast in the age to come.

The Second Coming was a big deal when Matthew wrote his Gospel. You had better always have your bags packed ready for the afterlife. However, I don’t meet many Christians these days who go to bed in the evening, wondering if it will all be over by next morning!

The Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near

Does that make the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids irrelevant today? Perhaps not. Because another strain of thought running through the Gospels. I have spoken of it many times. Jesus said that the Kingdom of God/Heaven had drawn near.

That gives a different explanation to the parable. We must be ready to remake the world as we believe that God would have it be. A society of justice, fairness, and peace, where there is enough for everyone, and no-one is left out. In this model, Christ, the Bridegroom, has arrived already.

However, are we, the bridesmaids, ready for the task? There’s a song based on this parable. “Give me oil in my lamp keep me burning; give me oil in my lamp, I pray”. The song asks for the enthusiasm to do Christ’s work in this world. Right now, that includes being peace-makers.

To sum up

So I find many different senses of “Lest we forget.” We remember with gratitude those who served in wartime. We remember with love the friends and family members whom “we have loved but see no longer.” And finally we remember that we need not wait for a Second Coming. Because Jesus, the Bridegroom, has already arrived. The Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near.

So I’ll end with these words, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” Amen.