12 November 2017

‘May God grant … to the Church
and the world peace and concord’

The War Memorial in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick … today is the Third Sunday before Advent and Remembrance Sunday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 12 November 2017,

The Third Sunday before Advent, Remembrance Sunday,

11.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick.

Readings: Joshua 24: 1-3a; Psalm 78: 1-7; I Thessalonians 4: 13-18; and Matthew 25: 1-13.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Our psalm this morning (Psalm 78: 1-7) teaches that God continues his saving acts in history despite the unfaithfulness of his people. They should recount for generations to come how God has intervened in human affairs through his ‘power’ and ‘wonderful works’ (verse 4).

Does God continue to work through mighty acts and in history?

It is unlikely that anyone here this morning who is younger than I am has ever met somebody who could remember World War I.

Indeed, it is likely that some of us, in this day and age, are perplexed and asking why this morning we would remember a war that began over a century ago, and those who died in it.

On the other hand, we are in the middle of a decade of centenaries, when people all over Ireland are recalling and in some cases even commemorating a series of nation-shaping events that took place about 100 years ago:

● The Ulster Covenant and the sinking of the Titanic (1912).
● The Lockout (1913).
● The beginning of World War I (1914).
● The Gallipoli landings (1915);
● The Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme (1916), which we remembered last year.
● The Russian Revolution (1917), which began 100 years ago last Tuesday.
● The end of World War I (1918) next year.
● The Irish War of Independence … and so on.

But for most of us, I am sure, 100 years is such a long time ago.

So, why do we keep on remembering, laying wreaths, blowing bugles, keeping a minute’s silence, wearing poppies … and so on?

Let me, for a few moments, share just two examples of why I think it is important to continue marking Remembrance Day, and then try to put that into context, asking some of the questions we should be addressing as we continue to mark the centenary of World War I and the other centenaries that are being marked over these years.

A wreath of poppies on my grandfather’s grave in Portrane, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

My first example is the story of my own grandfather, who was born 150 years ago next month [28 December 1867].

Stephen Edward Comerford was hardly a young man when he signed up with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in 1915. He had already been widowed and seen the tragic death of his eldest child. When he left Dublin for Gallipoli in 1915, he was a 47-year-old man, leaving behind in Ranelagh his second wife, my grandmother – they were married just 10 years earlier – and her five young children and step-children.

Perhaps he knew he was helping his own country and the smaller nations of Europe; perhaps he hoped for a better job not only for himself, but for his children too when they grew up. Either way, he knew he was doing the right thing – for his country, and for his people – when he joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers – ‘the Toffs and the Toughs’ – in 1915.

Within days, he was sent to the Greek island of Lemnos and on to Gallipoli and Suvla Bay. He was among the few survivors evacuated to the Greek city of Thessaloniki. But in the severe Greek winter, many of those soldiers suffered frostbite, dysentery and other sicknesses. Then, in the summer’s heat of 1916, more of them came down with malaria and were evacuated from Thessaloniki.

When I visit Thessaloniki, walk through its streets and climb its hills, I imagine how he must have watched his comrades die from the wounds they received in Balkan battles, from the bitter cold of winter and from the frostbite – many of them young enough to be his sons – while his wife and children wondered whether they were ever going to see him again.

As I stop at a church here, a monastery there, I imagine the prayers he prayed, hoping he would return alive to his wife and children in Ranelagh in suburban south Dublin and to her family in Portrane in rural north Co Dublin.

Stephen was discharged on 3 May 1916, three days after the Easter Rising ended, and was sent back to Dublin. Malaria was life-threatening but life-saving – for a few months at least. The war ended on 11 November 1918 and a month later, on 14 December, his youngest child – my father, also Stephen Edward Comerford – was born in Rathmines. Later, Stephen was decorated with the three standard World War I medals – the Victory Medal, the British Medal and the 1914-1915 Star. But his health continued to deteriorate, no more children were born, and he died alone in hospital at the age of 53, in a hospital that he had helped to build and decorate only a few years earlier.

My father was the only one of my grandfather’s seven children to have children himself. So, in a peculiar turn of events, malaria saved my grandfather’s life, however briefly, and ensured that he had grandchildren.

He died just two years after my father was born, and was buried in the old Church of Ireland churchyard in Portrane, close to my grandmother’s parents. But the inscription on his gravestone makes no mention of his part in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, nor does it say how he died.

Ironically, the gravestone also gives the wrong age for him at the time of his death. Stephen Comerford was born on 28 December 1867, and died on 21 January 1921 at the age of 53. But the gravestone says he died at the age of 49 – the age he was when he came back from the war in 1916. As his health deteriorated, he must have remained 49 for ever in my grandmother’s heart.

I can imagine her, like the young women in our Gospel reading (Matthew 25: 1-13), waiting night and day for the bridegroom to arrive. But when he came home, did she recognise the man she had married a few years earlier?

My grandfather’s only reward was three medals – but even these were lost in the various family moves between Ranelagh, Rathmines, Terenure and Rathfarnham. His lonely hospital death was filled with sadness, terror and dread.

His story typifies how those soldiers were forgotten by those who sent them to war and how their stories were not handed on in their families, fearful they would be marginalised further as the political climate changed in a new Ireland.

When I am in Cambridge, I often visit Grantchester, the home of the English war-time poet Rupert Brooke. Before he died during the Gallipoli landings in 1915, he wrote:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed...

In Ireland, my grandfather remained 49 for ever in my grandmother’s heart. And there is some corner in Thessaloniki that is for ever Ireland.

In the centenary of commemorations in this decade, the contribution of men like my grandfather must not be undervalued, still less forgotten.

A wreath of poppies on the memorial to Private Robert Davies in Lichfield City station (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

My second example comes from a train station I know well in the middle of England. Part of my life-story is linked to the cathedral city of Lichfield. And regularly, as I go to catch a train at Lichfield City station, my eye is caught by a poppy wreath hanging on a monument to a teenage soldier who was shot dead in the station in 1990. Private Robert Davies was off-duty and only 19 when he was shot dead by the IRA on 1 June 1990, waiting for a train home to his parents in Wales. He had been a soldier for only 12 weeks.

Six years ago, a new walkway behind the station in Lichfield was named Robert Davies Walk. His parents Des and Helen Davies were present, and his father said: ‘There is now a little part of Wales in the heart of England.’

Robert Davies was still in his teens when he was murdered, today he would be 46. Unlike, my grandfather, who was 47 when he went off to war, Robert Davies had no children or grandchildren – he is remembered by his sister and his parents, each day still grieving a young man murdered by terrorists who had the gall to take life, to murder, to create grief, all in the name of this country, and in the name of all who live on this island. Their names are known, but they have never been charged or tried.

‘Age shall not weary them’ … a fading poppy by the roadside in Comberford village, Staffordshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In our Epistle reading (I Thessalonians 4: 13-18), the Apostle Paul raises an important question about those who have ‘fallen asleep,’ those who have already died (verse 13).

Understanding this, he says, is important so that we may have hope, because we believe in the crucified and risen Christ, and that through him, God will bring those who are asleep into his company (verse 14). He reminds us that at the second coming those who are already dead will rise, and we who are alive will ascend, joining those who have already died. And so, we will all be with God forever (verse 17).

Is there an appropriate way of remembering those who ‘have fallen asleep,’ the war dead, on this Sunday?

Is there a thin borderline that separates remembering the dead and glorifying war?

Some years ago, at the Diocesan Synod for the Diocese of Europe, the then archdeacon, Jonathan Lloyd, tried to navigate that narrow gap, asking a number of pertinent questions:

● A hundred years on, what does World War I mean for humanity’s self-understanding, for Europe and its place in the world and our understanding of God?
● Are the centenaries of 2014-2018 celebrating or commemorating?
● What is our purpose and message and what place do penitence and reconciliation have?

World War I is beyond the memory of all of us this morning. But all of us live with its consequences. For that war led eventually to the monster that became Nazi Germany; it tore apart the Balkans in a way that continues to create suffering from Bosnia to Bucharest, for Jews, Romanies and other minorities across Europe; and it contributed too to too many problems we still face in the Middle East with the drawing of artificial boundaries and the creation of artificial states.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Lloyd has suggested a number of ways we can best honour and mark the centenaries in this decade, including:

● Hearing the stories from people of all sides of the conflict.
● Writing and using prayers that do justice to all the feelings that arise.
● Examining the lessons we should continue to learn today.
● Remembering key Christian witnesses and heroes. Not all of them are men, as the monument to the women of World War II in Whitehall in London reminds us. Not all of them are soldiers, as in the case of Nurse Edith Cavell, or the brave people who went against popular culture and declared themselves conscientious objectors. They include doctors and medics with the Royal Army Medical Corps. They include non-combatants of every age and generation whose cities, towns, villages and farms were destroyed.
● And, finally, praying for forgiveness, healing and peace.

The War Memorial in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

I am a pacifist, but I willingly wear a poppy on Remembrance Day, if only to say that my grandfather and men like him should never have been neglected, that their sad stories should never be forgotten, nor the sad stories of the widows and children they left behind.

I wear it if only to say that the murderers of 19-year-old Robert Davies in Lichfield should not have the last word about the value of a young man’s life, nor about what it is to be Irish today.

This morning, let us pray that we may find the ways needed to put all wars behind us, to put aside all hatred and violence.

Let us pray that when we remember that we remember with sorrow, with gratitude and with forgiveness, but without bitterness or anger.

Let us pray that the call of nationalist ideologies may never twist us, may never distort the love we should have for others, and never allow us to deny our shared humanity.

May God grant to the living Grace,
to the departed Rest,
to the Church and the world peace and concord,
and to all us sinners Eternal Life, Amen.

A prayer for the healing of the nations at Westminster Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for Remembrance Sunday, 12 November 2017.


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 and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Some additional prayers:

Words for Remembrance Day, the words of Laurence Binyon:

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.

From Laurence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen, written in September 1914.

‘Age shall not weary them’ … a fading poppy by the roadside in Comberford village, Staffordshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Some Prayers for Remembrance Day in Common Worship

Almighty and eternal God,
from whose love in Christ we cannot be parted,
either by death or life:
hear our prayers and thanksgivings
for all whom we remember this day;
fulfil in them the purpose of your love;
and bring us all, with them, to your eternal joy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

O God of truth and justice,
we hold before you those men and women
who have died in active service:
in Iraq, in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
As we honour their courage and cherish their memory,
may we put our faith in your future;
for you are the source of life and hope,
now and for ever. Amen.

you know our hearts and share our sorrows.
We are hurt by our parting from those whom we loved:
when we are angry at the loss we have sustained,
when we long for words of comfort,
yet find them hard to hear,
turn our grief to truer living,
our affliction to firmer hope
in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Lord, have mercy
on those who mourn
who feel numb and crushed
and are filled with the pain of grief,
whose strength has given up
You know all our sighing and longings:
be near to us and teach us to fix our hope on you
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Lord, do not abandon us in our desolation.
Keep us safe in the midst of trouble,
and complete your purpose for us
through your steadfast love and faithfulness,
in Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Our eyes, Lord, are wasted with grief;
you know we are weary with groaning.
As we remember our death
in the dark emptiness of the night,
have mercy on us and heal us;
forgive us and take away our fear
through the dying and rising of Jesus your Son. Amen.

Partners in Prayer:

The Diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Rossand, Bishop Paul Colton; Anglican Cycle of Prayer: Diocese of Ughelli, Bendal (Nigeria) and Bishop Cyril Odutemu.

We pray for peace in this broken world, as we remember those from our dioceses who have died in war, and those who love them in death as in life.

‘Pax 1919’ ... the spires of Lichfield Cathedral seen from the gates of the Garden of Remembrance … does God continue to work through mighty acts and in history? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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