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[Remembrance Sunday], November 9th., 2014
“His disciples remembered”
Today we commemorate the dedication of the mother of all mother-churches, but we also keep
Remembrance Sunday for all those who have died in the wars. Perhaps it is a fortunate coincidence that the
Gospel today includes the words: “His disciples remembered”.
And appropriately let us start with a bang. Or rather, two bangs.
On the night of July 27th., 1993, the centre of Rome was shaken by two bomb explosions which damaged
ancient churches. On was the church of St. George in Velabro, near the Tiber, which was once Cardinal
Newman’s church. The other was the Basilica of St. John Lateran which we commemorate today; here the
bomb damaged among other things the beautifully restored organ dating from 1598.
Why these places? Traditionally St. George’s is on the site where the legendary founding brothers of Rome,
Romulus and Remus, were suckled by a wolf. St. John Lateran is on the site of a palace received by the
Emperor Constantine from his wife and given to the Church, to become the residence of the Bishops of
Rome and their Cathedral. It is the “mother and head of all churches”, both of Rome and of the world.
So the bombers struck at the symbolic heart of both state and church.
Symbolic. Churches are symbols, but practical too; we need to come together to a place to worship. Even
atheists speak of empty country churches given out an atmosphere of ‘being used’, and we would call that an
atmosphere of prayer.
The church building represents the variety of humanity, enclosed in a space. A
Roman basilica, before ever it acquired a religious significance, was a meeting hall for the many.
If the heart is, as they say, the centre of ourselves, and Christ is the centre of our existence, then the Lateran
Basilica is the centre of our gathering. And it marks that by being, well, frankly rather messy. In history it
was attacked and stripped by the Vandals, wrecked in an earthquake, burnt down, burnt down again; then
massively restored under the architect Borromini who provided the gigantic internal statues which are like the
Colossus, and further enlarged in the 19th. century. As someone has said, not very flatteringly, it is like a
“battered old trollop painted with rouge”. There are far more beautiful churches.
At least it has its ancient mosaics: the river of paradise dating from the 3rd century, the Christ in majesty from
the 4th. century, looking down on all these changes, rebuildings and catastrophes, and upon us.
The Lateran Basilica is surely a symbol for our spiritual lives, which for the most part are not very neat and
tidy. Occasionally we feel we must tidy things up, and usually make more of a mess. The medieval German
mystic Master Eckhardt has an image of God actually making the mess ahead of us. “When we go into our
house and look for God there, God in his turn looks for us and ransacks the house. He behaves just as we
do when we are searching for something, throwing aside one thing after another until he finds – we find –
what we are looking for.”
God knows we are in there somewhere, hidden under all that!
And like the mosaic in the Basilica, through all the confusion Christ survives in our midst. Christ entered the
Temple and cleared out the mess caused by all the religious trading – a modern day equivalent would be to
vandalise all the shops in Lourdes – and as a result left ... even more of a mess.
Remembrance Sunday. Memory serves to open us out to truth and reality. Not false memory, golden ages
which were never that golden at all. All ages have been part gold, part mud.
That is why Remembrance
Sunday must be open to a certain amount of ‘mess’; it must allow for all aspects of the remembrance of war,
including the most neglected, the most embarrassing, the most painful ones.
How would we remember, for example, if we were in Germany and not in England? This is a theme which
absorbed the German writer Max Sebald, who came to England and worked here until he died in a car crash
in East Anglia in 2001.
When Germany was defeated, there was a profound silence. Germans saw
themselves as the victims, especially in the allied bombing of their towns. In the great Hamburg firestorm
of 1943, the flames rose two km. into the sky, sucking in oxygen and creating a hurricane; glass melted, sugar
in bakeries boiled, asphalt bubbled, humans cooked. People went mad and were unable to remember. It
was the beginning of a great displacement, to which may be attributed, so they say, the German post-war love
of travel with all its jokes about beach towels. Max Sebald called this silence the “shameful family secret”.
Only slowly could the lid be taken off the secrecy. “The majority of Germans now know – it is to be hoped
– that we actually provoked the annihilation of the cities in which we once lived,” Sebald wrote.
Remembrance Sunday leaves one with a wistful feeling. War has so many layers. There is peace in Europe
now, more or less, but where are the current faults lines of the world? I think most of us could draw them
on a map. We find it hard to live with peace, creating instead a civil war of urban violence, drug crime and
the like. Shouldn’t we have achieved better?
If human beings are a mess it is because “our species is unable to learn from its mistakes”. And that is
because we do not always try to remember clearly. How different in this respect were the ancient prophets
of Israel: “We have sinned, we have done worse than our fathers, we have worked wickedly!”
So today we remember a battered building and a battered history. Our victory as a nation, which is not to
be belittled, is nevertheless not a great juggernaut which just rolls over everything. We made colossal crass
mistakes and incurred unnecessary losses, and have done so since. Likewise our faith is not squeaky clean;
the Churches have been besmirched by scandal and failure, and our individual spiritual lives marred by
complacency, narrow-mindedness and presumption.
And what enables us to carry on? What enables us is the realisation that, just as in the ancient mosaic in the
Lateran Basilica, Christ survives through all the chaos, he survives and he looks down compassionately on us