A sermon preached by Nikolaj Christensen on 14 November 2021. You can also watch the sermon on YouTube.
It’s Remembrance Sunday, but, like some of you, I’m one of those lucky people who don’t have any memories of my own of being in a war zone, because in my lifetime war has been something that happened hundreds and more often thousands of miles away. So, I thought to compensate I would open with some thoughts from a French priest and scientist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was once quite famous. Before that he was a stretcher-bearer during the First World War, and he wrote a piece in 1917 during a time of rest, which he entitled Nostalgia for the Front.
Why you would be nostalgic for the carnage of the trenches might be a mystery for those of us who haven’t experienced it, and perhaps for some of those who have. But here’s a bit of what he wrote:
‘… to go up into the front is to rise into peace. … the irksome and nagging envelope of small and great worries, of health, of one’s family, of success, of the future … slides off the soul by itself, like an old coat. The heart grows a new skin. A reality of a higher or more urgent order chases away and scatters the whirling cloud of individual servitudes and cares. … for the moment they are a mere vague mist, left behind us. …
‘At the Front, … All the driving forces of one’s being can be released; no boldness is ruled out; … Of this I am certain: in this discharge of energy, carried to the point of self-exhaustion, lies supreme freedom’.
That still seems like a paradox, of course. What freedom can there be in being forced to go into a place of mortal danger? We’re so used to thinking of freedom as being all about individual freedom of choice, freedom from harm, and freedom from coercion. And with good reason: those are the kinds of freedom that soldiers go to war to protect. And yet, as Teilhard de Chardin said here, we tend to get so preoccupied with our individual needs and wants and worries that we can almost feel trapped in them.
Even we who haven’t experienced war sometimes have this nostalgia for wartimes, for the ‘Blitz Spirit’ and so on, because it seems war is almost the one thing that can bring us out of our narrow self-preoccupation and get us to work together against a common foe or a common threat.
And so, you get all these comparisons between the pandemic and the War, or the climate crisis and the War. But we are constantly stalling in our fight against those threats, and our selfish concerns take over again. A fight against enemies you can see is much simpler, in a way.
Here’s how Teilhard de Chardin describes the freedom from self-obsession. He writes:
‘The man of the Front acts as a function of the whole Nation and all that lies hidden behind the Nations. His individual activity and passivity are directly employed in the service of an entity that is higher in richness, in duration, and in its future, than his own. … Such a man has concrete evidence that he no longer lives for himself – that he is freed from himself – that another Thing lives in him and dominates him.’
In other words, the soldier ceases for a time to be an individual, and becomes part of something ‘higher than himself’. And that can feel liberating, and afterwards as something to strive not to forget. So, he continues:
‘When, therefore that peace comes which the nations long for (as I do myself, more than anyone) something that I can only compare to a burning light will be suddenly extinguished on Earth. … When peace comes, everything will once more be overlaid by the veil of the former melancholy and trivialities.’
And of course, we can’t wish for another war to rouse us. War is not something to be obsessed with. As we heard Jesus say in our reading just now: ‘When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; … This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.’ In effect, what he is saying is: ‘Keep calm and carry on’. Because behind it all, behind our temporary war or peace, is an everlasting kingdom of peace, which is still being birthed into the world. And our hope, our prayer, must be that we will be roused spiritually, to throw ourselves into that kingdom.
That kingdom of peace, the kingdom of God, asks for the same kind of selflessness as an army does. It also never eliminates you as an individual. But it sets you free to love your neighbour as yourself. It sets you free to do the good things you wish you had the courage to do. It sets you free to restrict yourself from doing exactly what you want, when it might harm others. It sets you free to share of what you have with those who need it. It sets you free to work for the greater good without seeking recognition.
Because in that kingdom you are remembered, all are remembered, all who have their names written in the Book of Life are remembered, and the ultimate claim of Christianity is that those whom God remembers will live, not just in our memories – but for real, even though they die. As we heard in that vision from the Book of Daniel: ‘Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake … to everlasting life.’ They ‘shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and … like the stars for ever and ever.’ God remembers you, always. No one who clings to him will be lost. As Jesus said: ‘those who lose their life will keep it’ [Luke 17.33].
Quotes are taken from: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Heart of Matter, tr. René Hague (London: Collins, 1978), 173-78.