Remembrance and thoughts on an afterlife


Remembrance Day; Scripture: Luke 20: 27-38

Remembrance Day invites us to remember Canadians who served – and especially those who died – in wars. Several months ago, I spoke on the subject of sacrifice, meaning to make holy. The idea is that those who died in war made themselves holy in a greater cause. This idea is very clear in the hymn O Valiant Hearts, which J.S. Arkwright composed immediately after WWI.

Verse 2 reads, Proudly you gathered, rank on rank, to war, all who had heard God’s message from afar. All that you hoped for, all you had, you gave, to save mankind—yourselves you scorned to save.

Hymns like this reflected that society deemed that the war dead became holy by giving their lives for king and country. But so did the French who served la Patrie and the Germans who fought for the Fatherland.

Remembrance Day today

This week, I had different thoughts about Remembrance Day. Everyone with direct memories of WWI has now passed on. That will soon be true of WWII veterans. My own connection to WW II is indirect. Remembrance Day retains meaning for me through the stories of people of my parents’ generation, and my recollections of what it was like to grow up in the post-war period. However, I doubt that it has very much meaning for Charles and Claudia, or for Robin and Alison. Almost certainly none for the grandchildren.

I don’t want or intend to demean the sacrifice of those who have died as combatants or as peacekeepers in more recent conflicts. It is simply that there are fewer of them. Therefore, few of us have a connection to them or to their grieving families.

What happens to Remembrance Day when we lose the connection to WWI and WWII?

Milton War Memorial

All this made me wonder what will happen when our generation leaves the stage. Who will keep the flame of memory alive, and will there be any point? It is sad to think of our lovingly maintained war memorials as neglected and forgotten. But it is almost inevitable. WWI is already mostly an event in history. Scholarly books such Paris 1919 and The War that ended the Peace by Margaret MacMillan record its origins and wider meaning. But no-one sings O Valiant Hearts in church any more. Few congregations recite In Flanders Fields.

Is this a bad thing or not, I wonder?  Would it dishonour those who gave their lives if our grandchildren abandoned Remembrance Day? Or perhaps we might follow the US tradition and remember all veterans — rename the occasion Veterans’ Day.

I had a parallel kind of thought on our recent vacation. We were in the Finger Lakes region of New York State on September 11th. Inevitably, there was much commemoration of the events of September 11th 2001. People connect to the tragedy. It has meaning because they remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard about it. They remember the images on TV. One hundred years from now, it will be just another event in American history. But will it ever be possible to abandon the remembrance ceremony? Would doing so be a sacrilege towards those who died?

Remembrance Day is essentially a secular event

Society at large takes a moment to remember the people who died at important times in Canadian history. For us as churchgoers it has another dimension. We reflect on what happens after we die. This morning, we remember All Souls, those who went before us, as well as war veterans.  That is precisely what today’s Gospel passage is all about. In the Holy Land of Jesus’ time, one of the hot button religious issues was the nature of life after death. Was there a resurrection of souls to an afterlife? Or did everything just end at death, with people’s souls despatched to an inanimate place beneath the earth called Sheol?

Sadducees, Pharisees, and life after death

Christians of all denominations agree that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ gives powerful support to life after death. But there was a wide variety of belief among Jewish people in Jesus’ day about what happens when we die. The main parties to the argument were the Pharisees, who believed in an afterlife, and the Sadducees, who didn’t. To oversimplify: the Sadducees were the party of the priests who ran the Temple, the Pharisees were scholars who ran the local synagogues.

The Sadducees probably asked Jesus the question to try to influence which party would gain the upper hand in running the Jewish theocracy. I doubt that whatever Jesus might have said would have changed minds that were already made up on theological matters.

So the Sadducees ask Jesus this idiotic question about a woman who marries seven brothers in turn. In each case the man dies before he fathers a child with her. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. They knew the question was ridiculous. They simply wanted to trap Jesus. The scenario comes from an Old Testament requirement that a man should marry his childless sister-in-law. As a widow, her prospects for another marriage in that society were virtually nil. As a childless woman, she would not inherit her late husband’s property, so she would be reduced to utter penury.

God is the God of both the living and the dead

To our modern Canadian ears, that realization appals us. Women had absolutely no rights in Jesus’ day. Their chief value was to produce babies to be their husbands’ heirs. But Jesus does not get into the question of whose wife this hypothetical woman would be. He makes clear that the question is a silly one. God, he says, is the God of the living. To God, the souls of everyone, whether we on earth call them living or dead, are alive with him. This connects us head-on to last week, when I talked about saints. But Jesus is clear in his own understanding. Both living saints, such as ourselves, and dead saints are alive as far as God is concerned.

William Blake: imagination and religion

I made a connection with a radio program I heard on my way home from church last Sunday. The Sunday Edition included a documentary on the work of William Blake, the English poet of the early 19th century. What caught my attention was Blake’s belief that imagination is more important than logic or reason. We see this idea in Blake’s words from Auguries of Innocence: To see a world in a grain of sand. And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour. Music, literature, and poetry all stimulate the imagination. So too does religion.

God, divinity – these concepts are imaginative, inherently unknowable. How can I possibly know God’s mind about gay marriage or medical aid in dying? Or what happens after we die?  Yet religions like Christianity are much more than a set of doctrines. The life story and teaching of Jesus Christ stimulate me to go outside my 24 /7 life. They excite me to imagine a world where good triumphs over evil, where there is no discrimination, and where everyone’s needs are met. This is wonder, in the literal sense. What might an afterlife might be like? Yet a scientific answer to that question will always elude me.

The Shema (Hear O Israel) sums it up

As I tried to package all this together, I was reminded of the Shema, which we sometimes call the “Hear, O Israel”. It was part of Jewish prayers in Jesus’ time, and still is today. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbours as ourselves.

The Shema brings us back to where I started, speaking about Remembrance Day. I believe that the men and women who went to war truly believed that they were trying to make the world a better place, and that they were fighting against the kind of nations whose ethic is “I can dominate you because I am more powerful.” The latter is the antithesis of the Shema – to love God, and love our neighbour, whoever that neighbour might be. Even though love of neighbour is far too uncommon in our world, we can, like William Blake, try to imagine it.  Perhaps, in that way, we might be able to imagine it into being!