75th Anniversary of VE Day & the language of sacrifice in our faith

This week incorporates a day of great historical importance for us, for our nation, for freedom. On Friday 8th May we commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE Day, recognising the sacrifice of an entire generation whose liberty was challenged but who proudly overcame the evil of Nazism. Our May Day bank Holiday had been moved so that we could have three days of commemoration that included Red Arrows and Battle of Britain memorial flights over Buckingham Palace, processions down the Mall, street parties, late opening hours for pubs and Winston Churchill’s iconic speech was to be broadcast over loud speakers in public places throughout the country at 3pm. However, the worldwide pandemic, recognised as the greatest challenge to disrupting life as we know it since WW2, has halted plans.

Instead, TV schedules will include commemorative services, the Queen making a speech at 9pm, the exact time 75 years later that her father, King George VI, delivered a radio address to the nation. There is to be a sing along with Dame Vera Lynn, the British Legion are encouraging people to get involved with its ‘Tommy in the Window’ campaign, other are painting poppies or other symbols in their windows. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have produced a pack with ideas for homemade bunting, original recipes, games and activities for all the family to get involved with whilst under lockdown. The Culture Secretary commented that “although celebrations will now take place in our homes and on our doorsteps, I’m confident the nation will come together to mark this historic occasion.”.

I often see and hear lots of discussion and debate over use of language such as commemorate and celebrate, the oxymoron of war and faith, the need to remember sacrifice and promote peace. It’s undoubtedly an emotive subject. The way in which a survivor of WW2 can lift the spirits of a country are quite incredible, it unites and brings the best out of people. Captain Tom’s efforts to raise money for the NHS captivated the nation because of his past, because he had battled through WW2 and was now doing his bit once more. From his courageous 100 laps of his garden aided by a frame, £30m left the bank accounts of ordinary folk, hundreds of thousands listened to his duet of ‘You’ll never walk alone’ making him the oldest person ever to have a no1 hit, and 160,000 families felt moved to send a 100th birthday card to a man they’d never met. On his 100th birthday yesterday, he was treat to a flypast from a Hurricane and Spitfire, and as they filmed his reaction and he humbly waved to the sky, he spoke these words afterwards – “One thing I would say, I’m one of the few people here who have seen Hurricanes and Spitfires flying fast in anger, fortunately today they are all flying peacefully, that’s outstanding, but I remember when they were flying not with peace but with anger.”. I felt that spoke volumes of the memories still alive in the man some 75 years later, and the emotion it stirred.

Looking at faith and conflict, we don’t need to delve very deep to see that they are intertwined over history. The Old Testament is littered with battles and wars, fought on behalf of God and justified by faith. Language of sacrifice and honour is rife, “When you go out to war against your enemies…you shall not be afraid, for the Lord your God is with you.” (Deut 20:1), “For many fell, because the war was of God.” (1 Chronicle 5:22), “Blessed be the Lord my God, who trains my hand for war, and my fingers for battle.” (Psalm 144:1). Yet there are equal number of quotes that are completely to the contrary in the Old Testament “A time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3:8), “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4) and “You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:13).

In the years since Jesus walked amongst us and proclaimed “put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52), the theological argument around conflict, just war and justification of actions has raged. St Martin of Tours, patron saint of soldiers and conscientious objectors, who served in the army for a number of years before refusing to continue, spoke out in this peculiar language, “I have served you as a soldier; now let me serve Christ. Give the bounty to those who are going to fight. But I am a solider of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight.”. I could write so much about the crusades, reformation years and the more recent world wars but it’d take days! There was a well-known Congregationalist minister called Lyman Abbott, who during WW1 sought reform and advocated military intervention for peace as a greater good, some of his quotes could create a fascinating debate, such as: “a crusade to make this world a home in which God’s children can live in peace and safety is more Christian than a crusade to recover from pagans the tomb in which the body of Christ was buried” and “During the last four years more men have taken up their cross and followed the great leader through Gethsemene to a sacrificial death than in any previous age of the world’s history.”. Has war and battle been romanticised? Has language of redemption, suffering and sacrifice been used appropriately?

Finally, I just wanted to allude to one more feast day this week which links to all of the above. On the 4th May we commemorate the feast of the English and Welsh Martyrs. Those men and women who refused to bow to the threats of violence and renounce their faith. These people are spoken of as people who gave their life for Christ, who suffered for Christ, who were martyred. At a previous school which was all boys, we always used to take a group of year 11’s to Rome each September. One of the highlights for me was when we took them to visit the English College, a seminary for training priests, because they had the most incredible artwork. In a gallery above the Chapel is a collection of paintings depicting the excruciating and gruesome ways in which the many English and Welsh Martyrs were put to death. In a strange way, I used to enjoy seeing the reactions of the teenage lads who couldn’t believe the detail of the images nor that these were real accounts. All the more entertaining was we would be given a talk about them by a diminutive elderly nun who spoke with such vigour and passion. It’s yet another example of how our faith has at its heart such a connection to violence, sacrifice and being witnesses to Christ. An interesting side note is the Chapel in the college was used as a stable for enemy forces during WW2.

Let us remember both the pain and suffering of our history, the courage and fortitude, the messages of peace and determination for a better world. And as we begin the month of May, which is traditionally devoted to Our Lady, Pope Francis has asked us to “use our time at home to rediscover the beauty of praying the rosary as a family together”. He also released a special prayer to our Blessed Lady which I encourage you to pray:

In the present tragic situation, when the whole world is prey to suffering and anxiety, we fly to you, Mother of God and our Mother, and seek refuge under your protection.

Virgin Mary, turn your merciful eyes towards us amid this coronavirus pandemic. Comfort those who are distraught and mourn their loved ones who have died, and at times are buried in a way that grieves them deeply. Be close to those who are concerned for their loved ones who are sick and who, in order to prevent the spread of the disease, cannot be close to them. Fill with hope those who are troubled by the uncertainty of the future and the consequences for the economy and employment.

Mother of God and our Mother, pray for us to God, the Father of mercies, that this great suffering may end and that hope and peace may dawn anew. Plead with your divine Son, as you did at Cana, so that the families of the sick and the victims be comforted, and their hearts be opened to confidence and trust.

Protect those doctors, nurses, health workers and volunteers who are on the frontline of this emergency, and are risking their lives to save others. Support their heroic effort and grant them strength, generosity and continued health.

Be close to those who assist the sick night and day, and to priests who, in their pastoral concern and fidelity to the Gospel, are trying to help and support everyone.

Blessed Virgin, illumine the minds of men and women engaged in scientific research, that they may find effective solutions to overcome this virus.

Support national leaders, that with wisdom, solicitude and generosity they may come to the aid of those lacking the basic necessities of life and may devise social and economic solutions inspired by farsightedness and solidarity.

Mary Most Holy, stir our consciences, so that the enormous funds invested in developing and stockpiling arms will instead be spent on promoting effective research on how to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future.

Beloved Mother, help us realize that we are all members of one great family and to recognise the bond that unites us, so that, in a spirit of fraternity and solidarity, we can help to alleviate countless situations of poverty and need. Make us strong in faith, persevering in service, constant in prayer.

Mary, Consolation of the afflicted, embrace all your children in distress and pray that God will stretch out his all-powerful hand and free us from this terrible pandemic, so that life can serenely resume its normal course.

To you, who shine on our journey as a sign of salvation and hope, do we entrust ourselves, O Clement, O Loving, O Sweet Virgin Mary.

Mr M Robinson
Lay Chaplain