Mark 12: 38–44
Notes on a sermon preached by Alan L. Hayes
St. Simon’s Anglican Church, Oakville
Exactly a hundred years ago today, a truce was agreed in World War I, ending a terrible period of global killing — ending it for twenty years, anyway. Most people agree that this was a purposeless and stupid war. The four great empires — German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman — had been sparring about some parts of the Balkans, creating a small powder keg that was ignited by a random assassin’s bullet in 1914. But things escalated quickly. Because of a system of alliances and treaties among European nations, they were more or less forced to line up on two opposing sides, and their overseas colonies lined up with them. The leaders were the more willing to go to take up arms because they thought that the war would be over in a matter of weeks, maybe a few months. But the war dragged on year after year. The suffering was horrific. Multitudes of soldiers in filthy trenches faced machine guns and artillery, poison gas, hand-to-hand combat, and bombing from the air. Battleships and u-boats fought in the seas. No one really won this war. By the end, all four empires had vanished. At the armistice, there was nothing to celebrate, except the armistice itself.
Remembrance Day isn’t really a celebration, either. Instead, it remembers something. What it remembers isn’t necessarily clear. Originally it was the armistice itself. Then in 1931 Canada changed Armistice Day to Remembrance Day; the idea was to remember not the event but the people, “the glorious dead” of the Great War. When more wars came along, Remembrance Day began including Canadian soldiers in more recent conflicts. In practice we remembered not just Canadians but fallen British and other Allied soldiers. And in 2018 the website of Veterans Affairs tells us that Remembrance Day honours all Canadians who have served in the Canadian military, whether or not they died.
Many of us may feel uncomfortable with bringing the remembrance of wars into our churches. Churches, we might say, should be places to promote reconciliation, not to preserve the memory of conflicts. Churches look to heal, not to keep wounds open. And that’s true, but our churches, I hope, aren’t disparaging the country’s historic enemies on Remembrance Day. They’re remembering the military casualties of our wars, and particularly the sad and stupid Great War. The Arc de Triomphe in Paris may list all the great French victories and the great French journals, but our cenotaphs list those who died.
Now, the Remembrance Day services in our churches do include some patriotic elements and national affirmations, which some find inappropriate. But although the Christian church is global and catholic, I don’t think that it’s wrong for churches to identify with their nations and communities. The Christian church grew nation by nation, language by language, culture by culture: Jesus’ mandate was to make disciples of the nations; nationalities organize the stories of the book of Acts; and Paul instructs us to pray for our civil authorities. God uses nations. God uses Canada. So it’s not at all a bad thing to sing “O Canada” with its prayer to God to keep our land on the right track.
Nevertheless, there are dangers. In 2001 Anglicans and Lutherans agreed on full communion, and now many of our churches bring together descendants of Allied warriors with descendants of German warriors. We shouldn’t really expect the descendants of Germans to try to look inconspicuous while descendants of Allies are exhorted to “take up our quarrel with the foe.” A few years ago our dean of Niagara, Peter Wall, edited a number of the journal Liturgy Canada to address these complexities. One approach that I like is to include all the casualties of war in our remembrance.
For that reason I’d like to look at three experiences of World War I from different national perspectives: Russian, French, German. Last year the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York had an exhibition of the art of World War I, and I’d like you to look at three lithographs from that exhibition by artists who tried to make sense of the war. They generally did that by turning to the Bible to look for categories of meaning. That’s totally unsurprising, since issues of faith come to the fore in wartime. Under the terrible hurts and uncertainties of war, some people lose their faith (“Why does God allow this?”). Some find a faith (“Only grace can lead us home”). Still others search for faith, as I think these artists did. And these artists can help us engage the Scriptures for meaning in our own lives.
Here’s a lithograph by a Russian artist, Natalia Goncharova, from one of the very earliest collections of war art, called Mystical Images of War, published in 1914.
The piece is called “Doomed City.” It’s drawn in what’s called a neo-primitive style with flattened space, distorted perspectives, and crude representations. You see part of a city with tenement buildings and industrial smokestacks, and three white-dressed human-like figures with wings, evidently angels, who descend on it. It turns out that Goncharova was adapting images from a seventeenth-century Russian bible illustrating the destruction of Babylon in Revelation 18. For the artist, the mystical reality of World War I is the doom of Babylon. In the book of Revelation, Babylon is a place of wealthy merchants, over-the-top material luxuries, and sexual licence, where the poor and vulnerable are marginalized. A lot of people dedicate their lives to Babylon, but in the apocalypse, the whole city is destroyed in a single hour. The message is this: civilizations may look robust and permanent, but they are really quite fragile. “All flesh is grass.” And now, Goncharova shows us, Europe, like Babylon, has come under judgment. This is not to say that the war is sent as a punishment from God, though that’s not exactly wrong, but it’s to say that a society which looks to wealth and licence, and disregards justice and the poor and the love of God, is already calling down the angels of destruction. For Goncharova, the prophetic and apocalyptic vision of the left hand of God calls us back to God’s purposes for justice and peace.
Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, a French artist who had a burden for the experience of marginalized populations, produced this next lithograph in 1915.
Between 1914 and 1915, 200,000 refugees fled Belgium. Here’s a small family leading a crowd of children carrying nothing with them other than the occasional gunny sack. The main title of this piece is “The March of Orphans.” The line of displaced persons seems to stretch beyond the horizon; in historical fact, some of these lines out of Belgium stretched for 20 kilometres. There’s a second title to this piece, though: “Exodus.” We may think of the Biblical exodus mainly as a heroic thing, the liberation of the people of Israel from bondage, with the promise of a new land of milk and honey. But if you had been there at the time, it wouldn’t have felt heroic. It would have felt gut-wrenchingly scary. The Biblical exodus is a story of displaced persons, who left behind everything they had, their homes and their dearest possessions and their livelihoods, on such short notice that they couldn’t even wait for bread to rise. Then they spent forty years in the wilderness, hungry and discouraged, wondering what was ahead of them. In Steinlen’s picture of the march of orphans, the mother’s eyes fixate on a distant unknown, and the children look unsure. For all the destitution and uncertainty, you sense hope. After all, what else but hope could move them forward? Theirs isn’t a confident hope, but it’s, well, a hopeful hope. They are looking in the distance in front of them for some kind of comfort. Probably wWe hope the same for ourselves, as God directs our pilgrimage into an unknown future.
Maybe the most affecting work of art of all is this one by Käthe Kollwitz, a German artist who, because she was a woman, was excluded from the art academies but whose father arranged private tutoring for her in art. Years passed, and her fame grew. As soon as World War I began, her son Peter enlisted. The story is that he was under-age, so Käthe helped him cheat so that he could join the army. Just a few short weeks later, he died in a battle in
Belgium. She was devastated. This piece, called “Killed in Action,” shows a mother who has evidently just received the terrible news. She’s racked with grief and despair, oblivious, it seems, to the children around her who simply can’t take in their mother’s desolation, and don’t know how to make her notice them. They are afraid and confused. What passage comes to mind more readily than the 22nd psalm? — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me? I cry by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no rest.” The theologians really have no solace to offer a woman in the dark moment when she discovers that her son has died for no good reason. And yet, as we look at this picture, we can imagine that, before so very long, the children will reach the mother’s heart, and will call forth her love for them, and that she will find a way to carry on, if only for their sake, however much hollowed out she may remain inside.
Our gospel reading for today helps us sum up the message of Remembrance Day. This passage from Mark was chosen long before anyone knew that it would be given to us on the centennial of the armistice, but how appropriate it is. The poor widow gives her last two copper coins into the treasury of the temple, which is every bit that she has left, just as the dead that we remember this day poured out the last part of themselves that they had to give. And we ask, for what purpose?
Typically people think of the story of the widow’s mite as a testimony to this woman’s great devotion to God, and as a model of unstinting discipleship that we should follow. But that isn’t in the text. Jesus talks about how much she is giving up, but he doesn’t say hold her up as a model. He doesn’t say, “Go do likewise,” or “This woman is close to heaven.” No, this is a sad story, not an inspiring one. If a lonely woman came into St. Simon’s this morning and gave up her last nickel in the world, we wouldn’t applaud her and send her on her way; we’d feel terrible for her. At the very least we’d give her a meal and some groceries and cab fare home. I hope we’d do more. And I suppose Jesus is no less compassionate than we are. The key to the real meaning of this passage is its context. It immediately follows a condemnation of the scribes who wear long coats and take the best seats in the synagogue and “devour the widow’s house.” Jesus is pointing to the poor widow as an example of someone whose house has been devoured by a religious elite. She’s giving up everything she has so that the scribes can have nice clothes and feel wonderfully respectable. This situation puts us in mind of the many occasions when Jesus complains about the religious teachers who place the secondary precepts of the law over the weightier parts. The priestly elite tithes mint but neglects justice, Jesus says. The scribes act as if we’re made for the Sabbath rather than the other way around. The priests foil the commandment about honouring our parents by insisting on the minor traditions of Corban (Mark 7). That’s why Jesus draws his disciples’ attention to the poor widow. She’s an example of how the religious establishment exploits good-hearted people.
This understanding of the text is reinforced by the passage that comes immediately afterwards, where Jesus prophesies that the stones of the temple will all be thrown down. The widow is going hungry for the extremely bad purpose of supporting a temple system that has come under God’s judgment and is about to be destroyed.
So this passage from the gospel brings home for us the message of Remembrance Day. The war dead, like the widow, have given up everything; and the hard truth is that the sacrifice of the war dead, like that of the widow, has no nobler purpose than to support an unworthy system and its misguided, self-serving leaders. So how do we respond? On the one hand we remember with thanksgiving and compassion those who, moved by their commitment to their families and friends and neighbours, sacrificed everything they had. On the other hand, we need to confront the powers that exploit people for essentially sinful ends. These three works of art that have met us from World War I bring home this double-edged message when it portrays both the judgment on Babylon, and the pain of displacement and loss. They invoke Scripture to exhort us to care for the hurting, and also to work so very, very hard for justice and peace. Human life is precious; love is God’s law; and it’s time, in God’s name, for Babylon to be judged, for healing to be embraced, and for war to stop.