Saturday, 7 November 2015

The Leaning Virgin

Notre Dame de Brebieres, Albert, France.
Sermon for Remembrance

Revelation 21:4 
He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.

Matt 5: 3-5
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Next year, 2016, sees the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

As part of our summer holiday we visited Albert, a pretty town in heart of the Somme region of Northern France, which found itself right in the centre of action during the First World War.

World War I Tourism is a big source of income in Albert to this day and part of the draw is the enormous and ornate Basilica, in the centre of the town, at the top of whose dome is a golden statue of the Virgin and Child, designed by sculptor Albert Rose and dubbed The Golden Virgin.

The statue was hit by a shell on January 15, 1915, and slumped to a near horizontal position, as Rupert Edward Inglis, a Forces Chaplain, describes in a letter home to his family:

2 October 1915.
We went through the place today where the Virgin Statue at the top of the Church was hit by a shell in January. The statue was knocked over, but has never fallen; I sent you a picture of it. It really is a wonderful sight. It is incomprehensible how it can have stayed there, and I think it is now lower than when the photograph was taken, and no doubt will come down with the next gale. The Church and village are wrecked, there’s a huge hole made by a Jack Johnson just outside the west door of the Church.

 Far from falling in the next gale, the Golden Virgin (soon to be renamed The Leaning Virgin) somehow miraculously remained where it was for a further three years, sticking out at a precarious angle, after French engineers did all they could to secure it. It was said by the French that whoever toppled the Virgin would lose the War.

Albert’s Basilica was finally destroyed by heavy shelling in 1918, and the Leaning Virgin fell and disappeared, assumed to have been taken back to Germany for scrap metal. However the whole church has since been lovingly rebuilt, down to the last tiny detail, including a meticulous reproduction of the Golden Virgin by Edouard Dutoit.

Today it rises high above the town, a symbol of victory on many levels, and a strange victory at that.

Victory is of primary importance in War. Everything, in fact, is geared up to victory.

Turning to World War II, here is Churchill on Victory:

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be…

However, through the Christian lens victory is subtly redefined, centered as it is on the victory Christ won over sin and death. In addition the Beatitudes, which we had for our gospel this morning, seem to suggest that in the economy of the Kingdom, things which we think make us losers, are very much turned upon their head.

'Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.'

Christ’s own victory on the Cross is a victory won by sacrifice, not by superior physical or military strength. It is God’s victory of self-emptying, fuelled by love.

Perhaps the French engineers who secured the Leaning Virgin at the top of the Church in Albert, understood something of the symbolic significance of Christ’s victory over evil. Perhaps their Virgin and child was worth saving because it reminded them that victory in war is more than just being on the winning side.

In the conflicts of today, against extremism, against terror, against ideologies and perceived threats, military victory is much less easy to define. The goodies and the baddies are horribly mingled together on the global stage and we may just as well fear the threat within as well as the threat without.

Perhaps today, victory might be seen as to do with retaining our humanity and learning how to live with the physical and psychological consequences of war, something Prince Harry has done much to promote with his Invictus Games and concern for the disabled survivors of modern day conflicts.

As the Great War dragged on, some of the more perceptive of the poets of that day began to spread the rumour that victory would be at too high a cost. One such was Seigfried Sassoon. As well as describing the horrors of the trenches, his poetry satirized those who, in Sassoon's view, were responsible for jingoistic pretentions. Sassoon became a focal point for dissent within the armed forces as he protested against the continuation of the war in his "Soldier's Declaration" of 1917, a piece of writing which led to his admission to a military psychiatric hospital.

In the same year that the Golden Virgin was nearly toppled from Albert’s church, the lyricist Alfred Brian wrote an anti war song about a mother’s viewpoint on victory, which was an instant hit, selling 650,000 copies and intensely annoying the American President Theodore Roosevelt:

What victory can cheer a mother's heart,
When she looks at her blighted home?
What victory can bring her back
All she cared to call her own?
Let each mother answer
In the years to be,
“Remember that my boy belongs to me!”

I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier,
I brought him up to be my pride and joy.
Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder,
To shoot some other mother's darling boy?
Let nations arbitrate their future troubles,
It's time to lay the sword and gun away.
There'd be no war today,
If mothers all would say,
"I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier."

(Bryan, Alfred, Al Piantadosi, and Will J. Ward. 
I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier. 
New York: Leo Feist, 2005).

In a similar vein, Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of the Falklands Conflict, famously annoyed Mrs Thatcher by objecting to her cry ‘Rejoice', as she urged Britains to celebrate their victory over Argentinian aggression. Instead he asked worshippers to pray for the dead, both British and Argentinian. 

Victory doesn’t look the same to all parties.

Above the church in Albert, the Virgin holding her child aloft is visually striking. A child – not powerful, not armed, seemingly defenceless; yet victorious. It’s as if the child asks us ‘what really is victory’?

After the long years of destruction and loss during World War I, loss which permeated even the smallest of villages, as hundreds of war memorials attest to, the child Jesus is held aloft, high over all other landmarks and high over history.

In our Epistle we were reminded of a similar exalted vision, that of St John on the island of Patmos, where his striking and puzzling ‘Revelation’ was received from the very same Jesus.

As the book of Revelation unfolds, we see, with John, the nations and peoples of the earth, and we understand, with him, that though wars come and go, though nation rise against nation, ultimately it is God’s kingdom that endures. Ultimate victory is to our God and to the Lamb.

The symbol of this victory is the throne, on which is seated the Lord of Lords, and from here he declares the advent of the new heavens and the new earth that all who have really suffered find themselves longing for:

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

If we mourn today, if we are touched and troubled by war and conflict, we can at least know that everything in the kingdom of God is turned on its head. In Christ, hardships and suffering are finally redeemed – those who shed tears are comforted; those who hunger and thirst to do the right thing are vindicated, and everyone who turns to God in humility is given life giving water.

Our response to those who have given their lives in war, in our defence, is one of humility and gratitude. Our response to our neighbours, whether local or global, is one of generous open heartedness, remembering that Jesus has had the final victory and calls us to follow him today.

And we pray for our political leaders, that they may be people of wisdom, equity and peace.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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