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Almighty Father, 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. Amen.
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On 7th November 1920, in strictest secrecy, four unidentified British bodies were exhumed from temporary battlefield cemeteries at Ypres, Arras, the Asine and the Somme. None of the soldiers who did the digging were told why. The bodies were taken by field ambulance to GHQ at St-Pol-Sur-Ter Noise. Once there, the bodies were draped with the union flag. Sentries were posted and Brigadier-General Wyatt and a Colonel Gell selected one body at random. The other three were reburied. A French Honour Guard was selected and stood by the coffin overnight of the chosen soldier overnight. On the morning of the 8th November, a specially designed coffin made of oak from the grounds of Hampton Court arrived and the Unknown Warrior was placed inside. On top was placed a crusaders sword and a shield on which was inscribed: "A British Warrior who fell in the GREAT WAR 1914-1918 for King and Country".
On the 9th November, the Unknown Warrior was taken by horse-drawn carriage through Guards of Honour and the sound of tolling bells and bugle calls to the quayside. There, he was saluted by Marshal Foch and loaded onto HMS Vernon bound for Dover. The coffin stood on deck covered in wreaths, surrounded by the French Honour Guard. Upon arrival at Dover, the Unknown Soldier was met with a nineteen gun salute, something that was normally only reserved for Field Marshals. A special train had been arranged and he was then conveyed to Victoria Station, London. He remained there overnight, and, on the morning of the 11th November, he was finally taken to Westminster Abbey.
The concept of the unknown soldier was the idea of an army Padre, David Railton who had served on the front line during the Great War. The union flag he had used as an altar cloth whilst at the front was the one that had been draped over the coffin. It was his intention that all of the relatives of the 517,773 combatants whose bodies had not been identified could believe that the Unknown Warrior could very well be their lost husband, father, brother or son...
The story of the unknown soldier, and how his memorial came to be in Westminster Abbey was something that had evaded me until I read the history in preparation for Remembrance Day. This year our remembrance will be ‘unknown’. Not unknown to God – not unknown to those who cherish the memories of relatives past – not unknown to the nation – but the act of remembrance will be unknown. Unknown to us since the wars end, things will be different this year, our remembrance will be largely private, and in many cases in silence. The usual parades in London, the service at the Royal Albert Hall and the local occasions at cenotaphs will largely be replaced by acts of remembrance in silence. The same silence in which the unknown soldier was exhumed, and transported to the great Abbey Church.
If you look at the grave in the Abbey, it fills you with a sense of trepidation. Particularly as you read the words inscribed on the stone:
THUS ARE COMMEMORATED THE MANY MULTITUDES WHO DURING THE GREAT WAR OF 1914-1918 GAVE THE MOST THAT MAN CAN GIVE LIFE ITSELF FOR GOD FOR KING AND COUNTRY FOR LOVED ONES HOME AND EMPIRE FOR THE SACRED CAUSE OF JUSTICE AND THE FREEDOM OF THE WORLD THEY BURIED HIM AMONG THE KINGS BECAUSE HE HAD DONE GOOD TOWARD GOD AND TOWARD HIS HOUSE
Remembrance Sunday is when we commemorate those who have died in ‘the sacred cause of justice’. In our reading from the prophet Amos, we hear of its importance. Justice is what God requires of his people. Fulfilling the call of justice is the way in which we become holy in the sight of God, and more than that, fulfilling justice, living a life of justice so that it ‘rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an everlasting stream’ is the way in which God sanctifies, makes holy the world. The unknown warrior died in pursuit of this cause. We, today, are called to the same task, we will not face the same dangers, we will not be asked in most cases to make the same sacrifice, but we are nevertheless, called to put into practice all that makes for justice. Knowing, in the words of the memorial service, that justice leads to peace.
Whilst the sacrifice we are called to make will be far different to the unknown soldier, yet the effect of our sacrifices is the same. We must be like him, offering ourselves for the causes of God and his Kingdom, so that his ‘just and gentle rule’ will be established in all the world.
Christ is our model and our guide, he is the one who embodies the justice and mercy of God that will truly transform the world. We are called, by him, to imitate his goodness, to be his blessed ones in the world. In the words of the Psalm: ‘O Lord do not delay’, our prayer and our action must be that God does not delay in bringing about his Kingdom, but that bringing about will involve us. We must keep awake, and be ready, ‘for we do not know the hour’ when God will call us to put into effect, by his grace, the justice that is needed in the world.
If we are faithful to his justice, then we will be warriors for the Lord, soldiers of peace, unknown to most, but known intimately to God and blessed by him for the words etched around the edge of the gravestone remind us of this: ‘the Lord knoweth them that are his’.
Today, may we honour those who have given the ultimate sacrifice and may we be willing to imitate them in pursuit of that ‘sacred cause’ which will bring about the restoration of all things in Christ, the King of all, so that we and all his people may be subject to his just and gentle rule’.
We will remember them.
God of peace, whose Son Jesus Christ
proclaimed the kingdom and restored the broken
to wholeness of life: look with compassion on the anguish
of the world, and by your healing power make whole both people and nations;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
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