I have been thinking about silence. The two minute silence, instituted by King George V for the first Armistice Day in 1919, is now part of our national psyche. The King requested that “All locomotion should cease, so that, in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.”
I read an archive report of that first silence (from the Guardian, see here)
At eleven o’clock I chanced to be at Oxford Circus. It was a most impressive moment. There was a loud detonation, and immediately the restless traffic was silent, every male head uncovered, and all flags on the house-tops slackened in the leech until they were half-mast high. I have never before assisted in a pause so reverent. It was possible to gauge the thoughts of the crowd. Many themselves had served, and will have been flung back…to the memory of those fine fellows with whom they had lived in the closest union until the fatal scythe of war snatched them away. Of the others, who does not mourn a vacant chair?
99 years later countless more men and women have been added to that number whose thoughts will be flung back to other wars and conflicts. There are many more vacant chairs to be mourned.
It is the silence of the emptiness of a space once filled with laughter and the joy of being alive that strikes to the heart of remembrance.
There is silence which frees us from having to find the right words to use to express our thanks, our reverence, our anger, our compassion, our frustration or our love.
There may never be words that are right. There are famous words…, words we have heard today – “they shall not grow old…” “…for your tomorrow we gave our today…” but even these only scratch the surface of the depths of loss and grief in a century of conflict.
We think of the noise of war but there are so many other silences in war too.
Different silences that when bundled together with the King’s two minutes deepen the silence and stillness.
The silence endured by those waiting at home.
A favourite book of mine puts these words into the mouth of a young woman with two brothers fighting in France.
It isn’t as if it were some sort of fever to which you might conclude they were immune when they hadn’t taken it for two years. The danger is just as great and just as real as it was the first day they went into the trenches. I know this, and it tortures me every day. (Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery)
My generation and those younger than me are so used to instant communication. We live our lives around phone calls and messages. Telegrams are museum pieces and letters are a rarity.
What must it have been like to wait for casualty lists in a newspaper? To long for news of a loved one – but to live with silence?
Today’s military families don’t have the same delays – they are not reliant on letters, newspapers or telegrams – but there can still be an adjustment to only periodic emails or messages; and there are still deep operational silences during conflicts.
There is the silence of those who were not able to speak of what they had seen.
The final silence of those executed for cowardice in the face of shell shock.
The silence of those who witnessed horrific scenes – and kept a stiff upper lip, never sharing their experiences.
There is the silence that confronts us when we ask God for answers.
John’s Gospel reassures us that we are loved as the Father loved the Son.
That the Father may give us whatever we ask for.
Yet in our depths of grief – whether for an individual we have loved or the loss of peace in a community – we cry out to God and hear nothing but deafening silence.
A hundred years after the war to end all wars we are still making swords and not ploughshares. Nations are still training for war.
Has God not listened? Has he ignored the cries from the heart of those in anguish?
How long, O Lord, will you hide your face from me?
Do not forsake me, O Lord;
O my God, do not be far from me;
Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?
Awake, do not cast us off forever!
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
These are the words of the psalmists expressing their fear and pain and the silence from God.
The psalms tell us there are are no easy answers.
I believe that God is with us in all times and in all things.
I believe that God loves us as he loved his son, Jesus Christ.
I trust that even when God is silent he is grieving with us over the pain and the agony and the war in the world.
This isn’t how his wonderful creation was meant to be.
We are loved as the Father loves us.
And the gospel today speaks of laying down one’s life for a friend.
Jesus lay his life down; to take it up again in the power of the resurrection.
The resurrection that did change the world.
The resurrection that assures us that God has won the battle over sin, and death; that there is light and life in this world and in the next.
The resurrection that assures us God is watching and waiting for us to speak.
The resurrection that assures us of God’s love even across the silence.
There is one final silence that should be filled.
The silence of the bystander.
The second world war did not start with the gas chambers.
Rwanda’s tribal genocide did not spring from nowhere.
The Syrian Civil War did not just begin overnight.
We may not be able to broker international peace deals.
But we can show that love for one another that Christ asks of us by breaking the silence.
Breaking the silence when we see people marginalised.
Breaking the silence when we see people discriminated against.
Breaking the silence when we see people bullied.
If we believe that we live in the tomorrow that the soldiers of the first world war gave us by sacrificing their today; how do we honour them?
We honour those who gave their lives fighting against injustice, genocide, and oppression by refusing to stay silent when we have a chance – any chance – to pursue justice and to speak up for the oppressed.
We pledge in a moment to work to serve God and humankind.
Let us say those words with confidence and clarity,assured of God’s love for us all, as we make the promise to work for peace.