Yesterday, I was on the fifth floor of the library, outside, looking down from the balcony to the parade. Rosie Aston, Chaplaincy Assistant and Theo Edwards, third year student, were with me. We were leading a livestreamed event for Armistice Day. This is my fifth year as Chaplain and I am aware that for many staff, particularly in security and estates, this day holds special and difficult memories. The University’s Act of Remembrance is a valued set-piece occasion for our community.
As we waited to co-ordinate our short presentation with the sound of Big Ben at 11am, it was moving to see people pausing together, and standing. We were not able to advertise a gathering this year because of the Covid-19 restrictions. So, the event was livestreamed on the University webpage instead. However, still people came.
Each year I see different things. I am aware of some service veterans amongst the staff, and others I can pick out by their stance to attention. There is a stillness as they remember. I am always aware of different nationalities and faith groups that I see. This is an event that it is an honour to lead on behalf of the University community. I believe it is also important to be inclusive of those of different faiths and no faith.
In the presentation, we acknowledged three groups of people. The first are those for whom this day is a time to pause and remember all who have given their lives for us, to thank them and give each other strength. The second group to stand with, are those for whom the day is painful through bereavement of friends and colleagues, memories, or injury, and in doing acknowledge their sacrifice given to preserve the freedom of others. Third, this year we also brought to mind those who are finding the present time a time of fear and uncertainty, hardship and loneliness.
The words said around the time of silence, just after 11am, have a changelessness about them. Every year in joining in this, we remind ourselves of the basic human instinct for peace and safety. Armistice Day is now 100 years old and gives comfort to all generations. Following the Last Post (played by Theo), we timed a two-minute period of silence. We stood still, together, and I could see many others on the parade below who had stopped where they were for that time. Some could see us above on the roof. This day is always a time for our community to gain strength from each other and stand together. I also invited those who would like to, to pray if they wished.
In the minutes coming up to 11am, Rosie read two poems by Wilfred Owen. Owen a First World War poet was killed on 4, November 1918, just one week before peace. He captured his experience in poetry, saying: “My subject is war and the pity of war. And the poetry is in the pity”.
In the first poem, Owen retells the Old Testament story of Abraham, who believed he had been asked by God to sacrifice his one and only son Isaac – as a test of his obedience…
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenched there,
And streched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so,
but slew his son, -
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
In the second, Owen is inspired by a damaged roadside crucifix near the front line:
One ever hangs where shelled roads part.
In this war He too lost a limb,
But His disciples hide apart;
And now the Soldiers bear with Him.
Near Golgatha strolls many a priest,
And in their faces there is pride
That they were flesh-marked by the Beast
By whom the gentle Christ's denied.
The scribes on all the people shove
and bawl allegiance to the state,
But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life; they do not hate.
Following these poems, we broadcast the sound of Big Ben at 11am, uniting us with countless others across the nation. There is always a depth and gravitas about such moments of silence. When I look around and see others held in that moment, I wonder what memories are going through people's minds. There should always be a high respect for those who keep us safe.
I turned to look down from the balcony for the final exhortation.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them. “
“We will remember them”, echoed around the parade. I received the following message soon after I returned to my desk:
“Thank you for the service today. This time of year is particularly difficult for myself having lost friends in various conflicts whilst serving. Could I please ask that you pass on my thanks to Theo for his rendition of the Last Post. Sadly, having witnessed the Last Post on many occasions, some in very traumatic experiences and the loss of friends. Theo should be immensely proud of that today. It was perfect and I can honestly say one of the best I have heard. Thank you so much Theo.”
I conclude this reflection with the prayer for the third week before Advent, which has an added poignancy this year:
whose will is to restore all things
in your beloved Son, the King of all:
govern the hearts and minds of those in authority,
and bring the families of the nations,
divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin,
to be subject to his just and gentle rule;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.