I begin by bringing greetings from the Isle of Man, and also greetings from the Manx Church, in all its venerable antiquity. The first bishop was placed on the Isle of Man by St Patrick, in the year 447 AD. It is a Diocese of the Church of England and the Province of York, but also thoroughly Celtic in its origins.
The diocesan name of Sodor and Man perhaps requires a word of contextual explanation, the name having been borrowed and re-coined by the epitome of the benevolent avuncular clergyperson writing railway stories for children. Originally it referred to the Sudreyjar in the period of Norse rule in the 12th Century, the southern isles of the Norse empire: that is to say the Hebrides, as opposed to the northern islands of Orkney and Shetland. Now of course the Hebrides are in the care of the Scottish Episcopal Church, and I have no intention of exercising that ancient episcopal right of raising my own army and declaring war on the Bishop of Argyll and the Isles. But the name remains in the title, and although Sodor and Man is today just the Isle of Man, it is a diocese that is in its heritage both Celtic and Norse, and containing within it the world’s oldest continuous parliament: Tynwald, in which the bishop sits every Tuesday.
Such a tradition certainly nurtures Remembrance. Every place, of course, has its own history and tradition that is special and unique. But I suggest also, if I may, that the Isle of Man brings a perspective to the other Advent theme of ‘being prepared’. At the practical level, it means understanding that if the weather closes in, the shelves in the shops will begin to look empty! If the five bridesmaids went out to buy oil for their lamps on our Island, they might well find that there isn’t any because ‘the boat hasn’t come in’!
That is, of course, the point. In the words that we sometimes use at Morning Prayer, we must ‘seek the Lord while He may be found’; we must ‘call upon Him while He is near’. Confronted with today’s scripture that moves us very much forward towards Advent, it is worth placing it in its wider context. The readings over recent Sundays have brought us to this late stage in St Matthew’s Gospel, after a series of challenging encounters with the Pharisees and others at their most legalistic: questions on paying taxes to Caesar, on marriage in the life to come, followed in Chapter 23 by the challenge being posed back to them by Jesus: ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees … ‘ Now, as the Gospel approaches its conclusion, and the teaching of the Lord becomes urgent, we move to stories of salvation – the bridesmaids, the talents, the sheep and the goats – which are neither quite allegory nor metaphor, but whose meaning is clear and stark: ‘This is utterly, utterly serious, and you delay or evade or postpone the encounter with the living Christ at your eternal peril – and that, quite simply, is not God’s will for you.’
What would those whom we commemorate today have made of that? Caught up in a living hell, what would they have made of the call to repentance and conversion of life in Christ? We read our history, and you certainly don’t need me to tell you the stories of humanity’s spiritual response to the challenge of war. But, like most generations previous to our own, they would have understood that torpor and inertia and detachment are not an adequate response to the practical challenges of life, and if not to the practical then neither to the spiritual. We think today of many: particularly of the casualties of the Battle of Passchendaele, those brave people who rose to the supreme challenge of their day, their historical moment, and gave their lives in doing so. You will also have people whom you remember today, as I do: in my case, people with whom I served on operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. And I am certain that Remembrance is not only a thought of the past, but a truthbearing spiritual phenomenon, an act of the will as well as the mind, an act of the spirit that emerges from the depths of what it means to be human.
As I look in the Christian Gospels for the word ‘Remembrance’, I find it in two striking places. ‘Jesus, Remember me, when you come into your Kingdom’ means not just ‘spare a thought for me’, but rather ‘let me be with you’, ‘do not let me be separated from you’. Most of all, the Lord has given us the words, indeed the solemn command, ‘Do this in Remembrance of me’. These words will be repeated shortly, as they are every time we gather to celebrate the Christian eucharist. And I don’t believe that I can put it any more clearly than that. It is the mystery of our relationship with one another and with God. For Christians, to remember a person is to hold them in a loving prayerfulness before God, and it is in the sacrament of the altar, the eucharist, that all this comes together: our union with one another and with all Christians across the seas and across the centuries, our union with our fallen and our departed, our union with God in the risen Christ.