Making History Thicker: Why Memorials Matter

February 4, 2019

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Preached by Canon Roland Riem at Mattins, Sunday 3rd February 2019, 5th Sunday before Lent.

Last Friday Helen Bussby’s funeral took place in the quire. Helen moved away from Winchester five years ago to be near her daughter, but kind and friendly souls visited her from our community and of course she remained in our hearts and minds as she was remembered in the cathedral intercessions, daily towards the end.

Helen was a cathedral institution. Her story linked us to the time, still remembered by some in this congregation, when her beloved husband Fred was Vice-Dean, from the late sixties to the early eighties.

As our Cathedral Chaplain gave us a lovely and leisurely exposition of Helen’s life, I was reflecting on what it meant to hold a funeral for someone of the advanced age of 98. Yes, there was the sadness of loss, but beyond this, there was the sheer value of remembering.

Our lives are spent in a rush into the future and we miss so much that we need to hit the rewind button in order to relish its goodness. As we look back, we don’t simply re-live events – we see and feel them from a new perspective – we re-member the past. Even the sufferings we have befallen are softened and we may even see the good that has arisen from those dark times.

As the Scottish poet Edwin Muir puts it in his poem One Foot in Eden:
What had Eden ever to say
Of hope and faith and pity and love
Until was buried all its day
And memory found its treasure trove?
Strange blessings never in Paradise
Fall from these beclouded skies.

There is a thickness to the world and our being in the world, which we can’t take in at a single sitting, which is a sign of the great goodness of the One who created it. That’s why a basic stance of thanksgiving towards the world is an essential part of believing in God and why thanksgiving stands at the core of our worship. Even when we’re singing about sorrow and sadness, we are singing nonetheless.

The Temple of Jerusalem that King David was building would help his people to remember their past with thanksgiving. Judaism was, and is, a religion of remembering. Their God was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the one who’d brought his people out of slavery into the Promised Land, the one who had united the different tribes of Israel under one king, David.

The Book of Chronicles, which tells us of the founding of the Temple, which we heard as our first lesson, is full of remembrance. The first nine chapters of Chronicles are an extended genealogy stretching back to Adam, a rather better lineage than Danny Dyer has explored on the BBC from his ancestor William the Conqueror.

The building of the Temple was something designed to sum up the whole of God’s dealings with the nation over thousands of years, since the dawn of humanity, the first days of Adam. The Temple said something about God, the nation, the king, the land and each citizen, all at one and the same time. No wonder no expense could be spared on it. It would have been inconceivable to be mean or meagre with the Temple-works, because this would have sold God, the nation, the king, the land and each citizen short.

As we read the story in Chronicles, we notice that the giving to the Temple project is led sacrificially by the king. Then all the leaders and representatives are invited to join in with their freewill-offerings. Everyone from the bottom to the top of society approves, as we heard:

Then the people rejoiced because these had given willingly, for with single mind they had offered freely to the Lord; King David also rejoiced greatly.

There’s joy in a common purpose in this moment of nation-making, till finally King David seals the whole enterprise from a triumphant, theological perspective:

‘Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our ancestor Israel, for ever and ever. Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty … For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.’

These are of course words we ourselves use in our worship at the Eucharist, where the holy gifts on the altar become the focus of our remembering, as we weave around them the thick history of Christ.

It is part of the gospel that the full remembrance of Christ requires, at the minimum, so little stuff. The poorest community of the poor can eat and drink and share in the body and blood of Christ. And yet culture, society, politics, psychology allow and encourage a bigger picture.

What went on in the Temple, the sacrifices, was its raison d’être, but the Temple wasn’t simply a shell in which this happened; it was the golden clasp of the jewel, which added immeasurably to the mystery of the sacred cult.

I don’t think we should be afraid of the anthropology of religion. It applies to all faiths in all times. The popularity of cathedrals today is not much due to the efforts of Cathedral Deans and Chapter, but because they are thick places with deep histories and architectural riches, which point to something special beyond. They are inviting places and sacramental spaces, which encourage wonder and remembering.

When you read the prayers left on the intercessions board, you’ll find people trying to set the lives and concerns in a wider context: “All things come from you, O Lord, and of your own have we given you”.

So today I’m giving you an argument: remembering is essential for our health and salvation; we need memorials to help us remember, and it is worth lavishing money on making and restoring them. And I have time for one, local example of this lavishing.

The East End of this Cathedral was in former times, important but neglected, dingy and lacking in decoration. The lighting project, begun with money from the Government’s World War I fund has seen to the dinginess and brought alive some of the best architectural features of the East End, the double arcading in the Lady Chapel, for example.

I’d like to focus on the presbytery vault, with many of its lesser bosses unaccountably painted over in the 1950s, with water damage, which has now been returned to Bishop Foxe’s original 16th century colour scheme and, again, gloriously lit, so that the east end glows from a distance.

The bosses tell stories, such as Bishop Foxe’s role in the marriage of Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon and another, towards the high altar below, of Foxe’s devotion to Christ, particularly the story of His passion, which in Foxe’s day was associated so substantially with the sacrifice of the Mass.

So here in the heart of the cathedral we see the political tied up with the theological, just as it was for King David and his Temple. David was not only blessing God when he offered his famous prayer of dedication; he was also having his own line legitimated by God, as we believe God meant it to be.

Remembering is necessary for our health and salvation and memorials help us to do this. They are expensive and they are political, but in the end whatever their imperfections, they benefit society. Few might call the Royal Albert Hall a beautiful building, it is grand and impractical; but it’s a place of remembrance, where every year we sing Land of Hope and Glory and every year the crimson poppies fall, and we rejoice that we are one nation.

‘Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty … For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.’