the penultimate WORD

Series 2005 - November
The tomb of the unknown soldier...


The Irvine Tartan  My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican




November 2005: The tomb of the unknown soldier

Silence envelopes cenotaphs across our nation.  Cadets and poppies, agéd veterans and wreaths attend the solemnity of the moment while families take pause.  Names and dates etched in granite are all but forgotten.  The chill autumn air catches a drop of moisture on a sniffling nose here and a teary eye there – among comrades who do not break faith with those who die.

Since 1919 the fabric of our communities has been woven with the warp and woof of remembrance and prayer; a conscious embrace of the Communion of Saints publicly expressed.  Some are reminded of forebears who died too young and too far away.  Children held in parent’s arms trace letters of names and stories are told that keep memory alive for another generation.

There is one name that cannot be traced, by letter or to antecedents.  In the shadow of the National Cenotaph, within ear shot of the Peace Tower’s carillon, lies a youth unknown and unnamed – a soldier returned to our native soil to rest in a peace that cost him his all.

Men and women of position and power gather with faces, nameless faces, caught in a crowd who stand shoulder to shoulder in reverence as citizens remember events they never witnessed.  The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier briefly arrests their attention before they disband and return to their commerce and distractions.

There is another Tomb, in another nation’s capital where once lay a suffering servant who knew the cost of peace as well.  His name is not unknown and his victory remains a focus of commemoration. 

We reverence the name into which we have been baptized, having found in his death and his resurrection the cost and victory of reclamation – from desolation to citizenship in a Holy City – the City of God.

In his death Jesus overcame death, not allowing a denial of mortality, neither allowing a diversion from the weight of cost.  We stand Sunday by Sunday, shoulder to shoulder as citizens of another City, a heavenly one – drawn closer to an empty Tomb each day.  This month is not unlike another, save Easter’s witness drawing an ecumenical fabric woven close in faith.

Jesus’ victory is given expression in a number of small ways, not unlike the seasonal poppy and wreath.  Banners and hangings, antependia and icons feature monograms for Jesus – IC and Christ – XC (from the first and last letters of these words in Greek).  Augmented with NIKA – Greek for “Victor,” icons identify IC XC NIKA – “Jesus Christ, Victor.”

The strife is o’er – the battle is won! The shalom of God is the gift of those who find themselves in Jesus.

Zealous iconoclasts suffocate the reality of the remembrance of a victory won on the heights of Golgotha.  The swell of voices calling us to spiritual warfare is distressing – in a day when the alarming good news of resurrection and Jesus’ saving sacrifice seems little more than an accomplishment by an unnamed soldier occupying a Tomb in Ottawa.  The suggestion that Jesus did his best and now we too need to do battle in a world that will overtake unless we do diminishes the victory accomplished once and for all.

I do not think that for a minute that sin is a mirage.  Neither is it a deceit.  I see brokenness everywhere I look.  I see brokenness in soup kitchen lineups and Employment Insurance cues.  I see brokenness kneeling in pews, and standing at altars.  But I am first conscious of the struggles that beset us as they well up within me.

When I forget that I am by baptism a child of God dark shadows overtake me.  When I no longer consciously hold my place within the Body of Christ I begin to crumble.  When I fail to hold on to what God has accomplished in me from when I was regenerated in the waters of Baptism I am aimless and afraid, and in that fear flail feverishly at all comers – zealously seeking to save myself.

As maple leaves are caught in autumn eddies and find rest beside a Tomb in Ottawa I am reminded that I am an heir of that for which I have not laboured.  Civilly and spiritually I am wholly dependant on another for what I have inherited.  In this Dominion of Canada – or the Kingdom of Heaven – I am not equal to what others have done for me.  Whether in the securing of a peace over the Axis Powers that allowed me life and opportunity for what I carelessly take for granted, or in the profession of faith that embraced me in the arms of John Young as he wetted my forehead and sealed me with an emblem of victory – I am an heir.

We share an opportunity to witness each day.  Such opportunities fill my days and excite me.  Jesus’ gracious invitation calls us to bear witness for him – and the victory that is his – beginning where we are and extending in ever increasing circles of diminishing influence we enjoy.  As we stand shoulder to shoulder shivering in the autumn air this month, so we engage others who need to learn how redemptive grace is continuingly operative in our brokenness.

Tracing letters on a cenotaph on the one hand, tracing a cross on the other – each generation ignites anew the memory of what has not been witnessed but calls us to bear witness.

Copyright © 2005 James T. Irvine

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2005 Series

    Anti-war Songs  Sermon delivered at St Matthew's ELCIC, Fredericton