For Recollection and Remembrance, this has been an extraordinary year. We have marked the bicentenary of Waterloo, from 1815; the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign of 1915; 70 years since the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, and then, in August, 70 years since the end of the war in Japan.
From our more recent history, a service in St Paul's Cathedral in March served to mark the end of our Afghanistan campaign, and subsequently at the National Memorial Arboretum we re-dedicated the memorial wall from Camp Bastion, a monument to our fallen from the ten years of military operations in Helmand.
But one of the most dramatic of events came at the end of October, in Westminster Abbey: a service for 600 years since the Battle of Agincourt. It was dramatic in every sense, complete with the placing of King Henry the Fifth's sword upon his tomb in the Abbey and a delivery in costume of the Saint Crispin's Day speech by Sam Marks of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The actor Robert Hardy read the Prologue to Act Four of Shakespeare's play, in which Henry the Fifth walks among his soldiers, his outnumbered and dysentery-ridden and fearful soldiers, the night before the battle, encouraging them, strengthening and inspiring them. This is real leadership in the darkest of circumstances:
... The poor condemned English,
Like sacrifices, by their watchful fires
Sit patiently and inly ruminate
The morning's danger, and their gesture sad
Investing lank-lean; cheeks and war-worn coats
Presented them unto the gazing moon
So many horrid ghosts. O now, who will behold
The royal captain of this ruin'd band
Walking from watch to watch, from tent to tent,
Let him cry 'Praise and glory on his head!'
After hearing these words, it was deeply moving to watch as the tomb of King Henry the Fifth was sprinkled and censed. But just as moving was a reading of the reflections of a French soldier in 1915, as together, again at war but now on the same side, the British and the French joined in the field of the First World War to mark the 500th anniversary of Agincourt. 500 years since then, 100 years ago from now... Yet it is of course not about dates and anniversaries, but rather about how the history of the past shapes the reality of the present, how human courage and self-sacrifice endure in the legacy that they leave for future generations.
While there may be nothing that is necessarily Christian or religious or even spiritual about this, there is something that is profoundly human. It speaks of the humility that allows a person to understand their life in the context of others. It speaks of the wisdom that allows a person to see their life as being relational, of value that is derived from a relationship of affection and care for our neighbour. And this is the meaning of the word 'Remembrance' as we receive it in the Christian tradition. When we celebrate the eucharist, we do so in obedience to Jesus' invitation to 'do this in remembrance of me', where remembering means remaining in a living relationship of love and faithfulness. As in everything else, the Lord here teaches us what it really means to be human: it is to live in His likeness, to abide in Him through sacrament and scripture and prayer. As I think of the word 'Remembrance', I think of what Jesus has asked of me, and I pray that I may be drawn ever closer into relationship with Him. I think also of those many people, in graves marked and unmarked, who sought to live to the fullness of their humanity in service of neighbour and nation and God within the dreadfulness of war, and I give thanks for them, and I pray for them as I ask that they may pray for me.