Sermon given at Evensong on the Second Sunday before Advent 2022
The unknown warrior's burial somehow represents us all.
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon in Residence
Sunday, 13th November 2022 at 3.00 PM
When the Unknown Warrior was buried here in 1920, he was to commemorate what the inscription on the stone calls “the many multitudes” who died in the Great War of 1914-1918. During the century which followed the burial of this anonymous figure, he has come to symbolise all those who have given their lives in subsequent conflicts. This man, whose name and identity is known only to God, rests here as a representative figure, a reminder of the horrors of war, of the violent depths to which mankind might go. As we walk into the Abbey, this Grave almost literally trips us up, as we stumble down that West/East axis which leads us towards the High Altar. As well as a focus for our memory, the Warrior is also someone who gathers us for prayer; prayer for peace, for reconciliation, and for the transformation of the human heart. His burial somehow represents us all, in our mortality and our own little sharings in the world’s violence and greed.
But there is another burial on this West/East axis which is also, in some way, representative. It doesn’t trip us up, rather it lifts our eyes. The Shrine of St Edward, behind the High Altar, stands in the East, the direction of the rising sun, and in the symbolic language of Christian geography, the direction of Jerusalem, the place of Christ’s death and resurrection. When St Edward was first buried here, in the church which preceded this one, he rested in a shallow grave in front of the High Altar. When Henry III rebuilt this Church, he placed St Edward’s body above ground in a new Shrine, around which would be buried Kings and Queens, somehow deriving their own deeper authority, even legitimacy, from their proximity to the saint. But following his death, Edward had swiftly become a magnet for people of profoundly different backgrounds or status. As the focus of pilgrimage for nearly over a thousand years, the holiness of this man and the hope which he symbolises, has been an inspiration for so many. Holiness is what human beings are made for. Holiness is God’s own building project, and these two burials, one at the far West, the other at the far East, tell us the truth about human nature and human vocation. We are not made for slaughter. We are made for sanctity. Edward’s burial also represents us, and the hope which we share. Despite the quick-sand of human violence and greed, St Edward encourages us onwards, into deeper Christian discipleship.
My Greatgrandfather was born in 1896. He joined the Green Howards in 1914. On 1st August 1915, he was one of the last hundred men at Scimitur Hill on Gallipoli. Decorated for gallantry at the Somme, he also fought in the great battles of Passchendaele and Ypres, before losing a leg in an accident where he was the only surviving member of his gun crew. His was an extraordinary story, and he lived until the age of 101. When asked about his own bravery, he was immensely self-deprecating. Like so many of that generation, he didn’t really ‘do’ emotions. He would simply say, “We were all brave. All of us.” And that was that. My Father and I never discovered the act for which he was decorated, and my Grandmother (his daughter) would have to wait until he was safely in his wheelchair before she could pin his medals onto his great coat. He had an extraordinarily strong sense of the communal nature of warfare, and of the loss sustained by so many. His own suffering was contextualised by the scale of that loss, and the overwhelming sense that this was simply a tragedy on an almost unimaginable scale. He didn’t believe in God, and it wasn’t my job to try and convince him otherwise. A gallant, proud old soldier, but a humble man, whose war ultimately ended in the loss of a leg and much of his hearing, he told stories of landing, terrified, in an unfamiliar land a long way from home; he spoke of terrible confusion and violence; of the death of recently-made friends. He also told of enduring camaraderie and the bravery of others. He knew about the Unknown Warrior, he remembered his burial. He didn’t know about St Edward: after everything he had seen, Christian faith was, for him, a step too far.
Although our two poles of the Abbey, the Warrior and the Saint, feel far apart from each other, sometimes irreconcilable, they do in fact belong together. St John of the Cross famously wrote that ‘the light shines most brightly at the heart of the darkness.’ In the Christian faith, the mysteries of life and death dwell with one another: as the Easter Sequence puts it, ‘Life and death together fought, each to a strange extreme was brought.’ There is a narrative which we see in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which is the pattern of our discipleship, and yet it cannot be deployed in a straightforwardly schematic way. We are baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection, each of us carrying within our very humanity the falleness of creation and the hope of glory. The road is not a straightforward highway from West to East, an uninterrupted escalator from the Warrior to the Saint. We are called to live in a world where both these figures tell us something that is true. That despite the extraordinary mess we make of the world, the God who is God-With-Us in Jesus goes to the end for us, and shares the intense holiness of his life with us even as he does so. The Unknown Warrior reminds us of the injustice and violence which can spring from human heart, an injustice and violence which is quite literally lethal. But this is only half the picture. In 1918, the now-famous British Army chaplain, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy published a book called The Hardest Part. In it, he describes an encounter with a wounded officer in a Belgian hospital who asks him, “what is God like?” Kennedy’s instinctive response is to point to the crucifix hanging above the man’s bed. The officer doesn’t get it, “I asked you not what Jesus is like, but what God is like?... that Cross”, the officer intimates in no uncertain terms, “does not help me one bit; it makes things worse.” He could not reconcile the God whose life and love animates the cosmos with the death of a man on Calvary. Studdert Kennedy would struggle with that, too, in theological terms. But it is this mystery of life-in-death, of the promise of holiness within the world’s suffering and sorrow, which is close to the heart of the Christian faith. During the time of the world, we cannot choose suffering or holiness, desolation or joy. Rather, we can allow the reality of God’s love to shape us, our actions and our attitudes, so that the ultimate truth of reconciliation and resurrection can be encountered and experienced more widely in our own cultures and contexts.
Somehow, many of the poets of the Great War would begin to articulate, as early as 1918, even as they stammered with grief and incomprehension, how their grief over such terrifying loss of life might be put to work in building a better world. Speaking of the dead, Geoffrey Faber put it, in his poem Victory
Our love and labour shall make earth anew.
On the Cross, Christ’s love and labour was already making earth anew. Jesus’s limitless love and profound holiness were already providing the foundations for a new creation. For now, the Warrior and the Saint belong together, as we struggle to unclench our hands sufficiently to receive and share this gift, which pours out from the cross. But its victory is assured. This new creation is the gift of the God who shuts the mouths of lions, and who promises that he will wipe away all tears from our eyes.