Who would have thought a hundred years on that we would still be arguing over the shady causes of World War One; debating whether the lions were led by donkeys or the donkeys were really doves whose hopes of peace were crushed in the battle-cries of brotherhood and lingering clouds of mustard gas? As millions of us make the pilgrimage to file past 888,246 ceramic poppies, a part of us is still dying on Passchendaele ridge, and if not there, in Flanders fields or the Somme, where the lives of our bravest and best were snuffed out by snipers and trampled into the mud. Thousands of them still sleep there, encased in unmarked tombs of distant affection.
Wives became weeping widows, inconsolable in the void of grief. We are their children, or their children’s children and their children’s children’s children. They live forever in our DNA. We sing loving hymns of praise, shed tears of pride and give thanks for their glorious sacrifice in an honourable ritual of homage. We make it annually without thinking very much about the gloom of that glory, or the mangled faces moaning in a lingering death we call sacrifice – a noble word with a form of virtue and selflessness.
You’ve probably never been shot by a sniper or blown to bits by hand grenade, but sacrifice is agony. It might sound golden, but it is hours of fear and loneliness garnished by the weeds of an obscure grave. We only hear the valiant tales of detachment and farewell. But hearts bled, limbs writhed and voices groaned in rivers of bitterness choking on the stench of rotting flesh. These boys were once sitting on their mothers’ knees, kissed with the warmth of a loving prayer. Now their cheeks are cold and buried in a foreign land; heart-to-heart, head to toe, waiting for Judgment Day.
The last post or the Last Trumpet? The one echoes solemnly in history; the other promises its fulfilment. We smile at a field of white crosses, and kiss the marble grey monuments to a generation of fallen children. The grass withers, the wind blows and the rain falls. But on this one day, year after year, we feel compelled to remember and watch, transfixed, as thousands of poppies descend from the dome. They were our boys, you see, and we are proud to feel we know them all by name. We forced them to become men a little too early so that we might be victorious. They died to save us. Or something like that. It was and remains their reason for being: their sacrifice was immeasurably valuable to us, if utterly meaningless to most of them. They saw futility: we know the fruits of freedom, worth and hope.
The war to end all wars did no such thing. We commemorate its beginning with a sea of red blood around a tower, but its end soon became another war, and the end of that is fast becoming another. We are besieged by wars and rumours of wars, and each brings grief, pain, and dews of peace. Our freedom is illusory because humanity is imperfect, patiently awaiting a world order restored in Jesus Christ. He died to save us. No doubt about that. It was and remains His reason for being.
Peace is a divine initiative, you see, and God is at work in us and through us. If you listen to His Spirit while you file past the sea of poppies honouring our Glorious Dead, you might just taste His suffering in an echo of their anguish. And if you honour that sacrifice and die to self, you will know the peace that passes understanding, and walk with the saints into Glory.