Sunday, November 10, 2013

Healing of the Memories - Reflections for Remembrance Sunday

For those I spoke to in my first two churches who had actually been in the trenches in the first world war, and for those I spoke to in all of my churches who had seen fighting in the second world war and in those more recent conflicts we mention in our Act of Remembrance, the Remembrance of Remembrance Sunday was troubling, and could and can at times be deeply troubling.  The Remembrance of things seen and things done in war is now recognised as something that needs not just understanding but often professional support.  It is perhaps no coincidence that two of the great war poets of the First World War, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen met in the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh when the first steps were being taken towards an understanding of what in only the last twenty years or so has been recognised as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Where people are deeply troubled by remembrance of horrific events there are ways of helping through a medical response, through counselling.  And all of those are to be valued.  Prayer, I believe, does not replace such treatments.  It does, I  believe complement them.

And one specific kind of praying is, it seems to me, helpful.  And that is Prayer for the Healing of the Memories.  Such prayer finds its focus in the healing grace of the Jesus who is the same, yesterday, today and forever.

Just as Jesus reached out to touch the man whose life had been devastated by leprosy, the woman suffering the agonies of an illness that seemed to have lasted a life time in a loving kindness that brought healing, so too the loving kindness of Jesus reaches out to touch us.  When a troubling mental picture comes to mind of something from the past, bring into that picture an image of Jesus, reaching out to bring that touch of deep down healing that he alone can give.  A peace beyond all understanding.

It’s interesting how people have found it helpful to picture Jesus.

The Sculptor Jacob Epstein was one of those profoundly troubled by experiences he had in the First World War.  It was then that he turned first to sculpting the figure of Jesus.  Begun in 1917, completed in 1919, he hoped his sculpture, The Risen Christ, would be used as par of a War Memorial.  No one would accept it.  It now stands in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh.  He described it as an invitation to see ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’ from Christ’s point of view.  In preparation for the finished sculpture he created a working model or ‘maquette’ of the hands of Christ – they are now in the New Art Gallery in Walsall the resting place for so much of his work and collection.

In one moment the raised hand seems to be saying a halt to the madness of all this destruction and at one and the same time that hand is raised in blessing.  And it brings the blessing of healing because it is wounded.

The risen Christ who appeared to Thomas bears the wounds of crucifixion in his hands.  It is the wounded Christ who is risen.  It is the very ‘woundedness’ of the Christ who is the ‘wounded healer’ that enables him to be the healer of those troubled memories.

When Llandaff Cathedral was re-built after it was bombed in the Second World War it was to Jacob Epstein that the Cathedral authorities turned.  His Christ that stands with outstretched arms over the nave of the Cathedral seems to say to those whose remembrance is scarred … come to me all you that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.

It is this Jesus who is the same, yesterday and today and forever who comes in his woundedness to bring healing to those memories that trouble.

One of the most remarkable sculptors whose life spanned the whole of the the 20th century was Josefina de Vasconcellos.  A person of profound Christian faith, passionately committed to working with disadvantaged youngsters in the wilds around her home in the Lake District, she found herself working on a sculpture of Christ in the middle of the 1930’s.  It was to be entitle Christ the Judge.  It was carved from ‘a huge piece of Portland stone left over from Sir Christopher Wren’s rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral in London.”  As Margaret Lewis says in her biography, “The stone was one of the monoliths laid out for Wren to select for the pillars of St Paul’s.  He rejected it as being not quite perfect, and after waiting for nearly three hundred years the stone was finally given life by Josefina.  The work,” Margaret Lewis goes on to say, “ was inspired by Josefina’s anxiety at the growing clouds of war.”

She took as her inspiration that most powerful of passages in Mark 4

Mark 4:35ff

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

In all likelihood the earliest of the Gospels to be written, Mark’s gospel was being written in the mid 60’s AD.  It was a time when war was looming large over the horizon in Galilee and then in Judea and Jerusalem.  Many Jewish people had come to the conclusion that war was the only way to oust the Roman power – and they took to arms.  Rome did not take the rebellion sitting down and sent their legions down to take back Galilee and then Judea and Jerusalem.  It was a horrific time of bloodshed and carnage.  And culminated in the destruction of the Temple in AD 70.

Read Mark’s gospel against that backdrop and it feels very much an appeal to those Jewish people who had chosen to follow the one who had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, to hold fast their trust and their faith in him.

It felt as if the waters of destruction and war were overwhelming them – how wonderful to be reminded of the storm that threatened to overwhelm and those words of Jesus, Peace!  Be still!

This was what inspired Josefina de Vasconcellos as she continued to work on her sculpture through those war years in her Lake District Home.   “The base,” Margaret Lewis suggests, “reveals Josefina’s fears for humanity: cruelty, killing, the worship of fanatises, the viciousness of the serpent striking fiercely .  Christ’s blessing and forgiveness stands above this.”

In 1950 this ‘monumental, eight-foot figure, first called Christ the Judge, became known as The Prince of Peace when it was adopted as the centrepiece for the National War Memorial at Aldershot, where, when Philippa, one of our Time for God Volunteers took these photos it still stands, albeit in some neglected state.

When that remembrance threatens to overwhelm and the storm of memory rages at its worst how powerful to bring to mind those words of Jesus,  “Peace!  Be still!”

Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and for ever.

The tragedy of Remembrance Sunday is that today it is not just the remembrance of war that troubles.  The ravages of war continue to fill the headlines.

So, I found it moving when David Roberts forwarded me only this last week to a story in the Times of Israel.

The headline reads …

In midst of Syrian war, giant Jesus statue arises
Improbably, under cover of truce, 12-meter figure installed
on mountain overlooking ancient pilgrim route to Jerusalem

The Armenian sculptor of this giant bronze sculpture is not named. The work was commissioned in 2005 by Syrian Russian, al-Ghadban, and London-based foundation with private sponsorship and inspired by the  Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro.

By 2012 Syria was ravaged by civil war and the sponsoring foundation was on the verge of abandoning the project when they consulted Syria’s Greek Orthodox Patriarch, John Yaziji.  He was determined the project should go ahead.

The story of how it came to be erected on 14th October is remarkable.  “The three armed groups in the area - Syrian government forces, rebels and the local militias of Sednaya, the Christian town near the statue site — halted fire while organizers set up the statue.”   Associated Press report (

Words Jacob Epstein shared twenty years after completing his Christ is Risen sculpture, on the eve of another war come very much to mind as I think of that bronze statue of Christ in Syria“I should like to remodel this ‘Christ’.  I should like to make it hundreds of feet high, and set it up on some high place where all could see it, and where it would give out its warning, its mighty symbolic warning to all lands.  The Jew – the Galilean – condemns our wars and warns us that “Shalom, Shalom”, must be still the watchword between man and man.”’

Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever.

Through the international partnerships that bring us together with churches the world over we have received a letter this week from a church in Syria and its pastor.

It is heart-rending to read the appeal he has sent to our churches this week for prayer and support … and moving too as one realises that it is into the middle of this conflict they seek to bring the presence of Christ

“Considering this inhumane and sad situation our Church has established a polyclinic to serve the community around us regardless of denominational affiliation by assisting those in need of medical care, and especially trying to help patients with chronic diseases in need of long-time medical assistance.”  Describing the worshipping congregation of 400 the letter goes on to say, “Our people will continue to work and pray for peace and safety.”

And what is happening in Syria is inextricably linked with our Remembrance of the First World War.  I found myself reading that leaflet from Middle East Concern about how to pray for the Middle East as I was standing right next to the war memorial roll on the wall of our church.

“There are, it suggests, three historical eras that set that context:
  • Ottoman Empire ruled much of the region (and followed a number of previous empires)
  • Western Colonial era post World War One; current nation states created by the West; most countries are colonial constructs, ruled either by a monarchy (e.g. Jordan) or endured one or more coups leading to one-party dictatorships (e.g. Egypt, Iraq, Syria)
  • This era is being ended (or is it?) by a clear call for the people’s involvement in their governance; it is unclear what will emerge.

I have always felt that to honour the memory of those who lost their lives in war we should echo the longing they had in the midst of that war for peace and commit ourselves to work for the peace they longed to see.

If we are remembering that First World War this day, how important it is to seek peace in Syria.  The crisis facing the people of Syria is beyond our imagining and the worst humanitarian disaster for many, many years.  That’s what has prompted us from Thursday’s Deacons meeting to support the Syria Appeal of Embrace the Middle East.

Working through our Lebanese partners, we are empowering a network of Syrian churches to provide emergency food parcels to the most vulnerable families.

Christ, the wounded healer who in the midst of the storm says, Peace!  Be Still! speaks into the ravages of war in Syria in that truce of warring factions that enabled that sculpture to be stand on Cherubim Mountain.  How much more does he speak in the work for peace of that Church in Syria and of the work of those many Syrian churches that are in partnership with Embrace the Middle East.

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