In 1915, John McCrae, a Canadian medical doctor serving in the First World War (which began 100 years ago) gave us the most poignant and definitive image of that war that was supposed to end all wars, in his poem In Flanders Fields, which reads in part:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The primary image is of the poppy, and his poem is an ironic and somewhat bitter observation about how life springs up out of death, as he noted that the poppies were growing profusely over the graves of dead soldiers. They had lots to grow on — there were hundreds of thousands of dead planted in the soil of France, never to return to their homes around the world. Canada had upwards of 65,000 military personnel killed in that war; Britain lost almost 900,000; France lost nearly 1.5 million – virtually all were young men.
There were many “unknown soldiers” from all over the world who left their blood and their bodies in the soil of France. McRae wrote his poem after the second battle of Ypres, an extended battle in which Canadians distinguished themselves for courage and tenacity in the face of a huge assault that included chemical weapons. It was a time that McCrae described as a nightmare, and he wrote the poem following that battle, just after presiding over the burial of his best friend.
Blood-red poppies. In the midst of the carnage, a sign – a sign that went unheeded, as the war continued unfazed for another three years of carnage. The “war to end all wars” finally ended with an estimated 37 million casualties (estimated – because in a war of that scale, what’s a million or two people here or there?) “Never again,” they said. And then 20 years later the world engaged in an even bloodier war.
The poem also offers the powerful image of a torch needing to be passed on and held high. For McRae this torch represented an appeal to duty, doing what’s right, defending what is essential to us, upholding loyalty and honour, and taking pride in one’s cause (although in that confusing, and in many ways pointless, war, it was hard to see patriotism as a virtue, because that was supposedly the motivation on both sides of the battlefield).
The Book of Wisdom reminds kings and those in power that their authority is derivative – it comes from God – and therefore they are warned to use godly wisdom in ordering the affairs of their nations. The desire for wisdom, it says, leads to a different kind of kingdom, but far too often, rulers let arrogance, entitlement and ambition guide their actions and forget or dismiss that wisdom.
We must never forget, for a whole variety of reasons. At this time of year we remember the great wars of the last century (and all the smaller ones as well), and we give thanks for those who chose to stand on guard for certain values and principles like freedom, and justice and equality – those who chose to bear with courage that torch McCrae spoke of. And perhaps we are led to think about the importance of standing up ourselves when necessary, in the face of abuse and threat and oppression.
“Be prepared” was the old Scouts’ motto I learned as a kid. The Gospel today tells a story of some young women standing on guard, and like good sentinels, they’ve got their torches lit and burning brightly. Well, at least some of them have.
Jesus uses the image of a wedding to tell a story, to make a point, but this parable is not primarily about 1st Century wedding customs any more than the Parable of the Talents is about 1st Century banking practices. It’s a story which is meant to offer some piece of wisdom or spiritual insight. As with so much of Matthew’s Gospel, this is not about a wedding per se, it’s about the kingdom, and it’s about the choices we make.
Jesus says, “The Kingdom is like this ….” Or “this is how things will go . . .” A momentous occasion is about to happen, something with potentially cosmic significance is coming, and half the people respond in a meaningful way and the other half of them are foolish and don’t seem to care – they’re not oriented to reality. They don’t consider the future, as it were, and as a result, their lamps go out and they completely miss the boat – they don’t get to be part of the very thing they are supposed to be waiting on.
The parable seems to be a strong comment about negligence and thoughtlessness in regard to spiritual life, and life in general. It is not intended to speak of some minor faux pas or difference of approach. It’s about failing to show up properly prepared for the most important moment of your life – for the most critical of events — like a pilgrim setting out across the desert and forgetting to bring water, or like soldiers going off to battle and forgetting to bring their guns.
How do you feel when someone takes an “Oh well – I don’t really care” attitude about something you think is really important?
As Jesus tells this story, half the young women are dismissed and left out. It sounds rather harsh and unfeeling. Shouldn’t everyone be included? Jesus makes it clear that they have made the choice not to be included. The story is a kind of contrast between wisdom and folly. It’s about freedom of choice, and it’s about consequences. This parable is not just a challenge – it’s a warning.
It’s interesting that the first reading today, from the book of Wisdom, says
“Wisdom is radiant and unfading . . .” – like a lamp for instance, or the light of Christ. The song that comes to mind is “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning ‘til the break of day” – and at the break of that day we will indeed sing a jubilant “Hosanna!” as we meet the King of Kings in person.
The Gospel reminds us that we can’t be asleep at the switch when there are serious things taking place. We in Canada just got an unpleasant taste of what the future might bring if we don’t stand on guard – if we don’t uphold our values and what we hold to be sacred. In the face of the recent brazen attack by a deranged man believing himself to be on some kind of holy war, we can thank God for the quick reaction of Parliament Hill security and Ottawa police and RCMP. Thank God they were standing on guard!
The Gospel suggests it is not enough to stand on guard symbolically or in a token way. That is in part the tragedy of the story of Corporal Nathan Cirillo, the soldier killed at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. Through no fault of his own, Cpl Cirillo was standing guard with no ammunition. It’s symbolic to me of the way we in Canada have approached recent developments in the world. And maybe this unfortunate incident becomes a wake-up call that we actually do have to stand on guard, and be awake and vigilant about threats, and not continue to be naïve but wise. But it seems to me we have to realize that the real threat is not merely physical but ideological, and not merely external, but internal, in the form of apathy and indifference.
Canadians are still somewhat stunned by the assault on one of our most cherished symbols. The film footage was remarkable. As the would-be terrorist approached, gun drawn, understandably people ran for their lives. But what was really remarkable is that after the shooting started inside the building, the cameras revealed the frightening and confusing scene unfolding, with the sound of multiple gunshots echoing off the walls, and what you saw was these young RCMP and security officers not running away or taking cover but running toward the threat! That’s what it means to show up dressed for work; that’s what it means to stand on guard – to really be there when it counts. That’s the kind of character today’s Gospel is calling out in people. In a crisis, you need people who are really willing to stand and deliver.
We can be deeply today thankful for the many who have stepped forward to accept that torch and become bearers of light in a world that all too often rotates toward the darkness. The women in the Gospel symbolize and represent those faithful few who persist in going forward even when the way is dark, who recognize the magnitude of the situation and respond accordingly.
As important as it is to become more vigilant about our nation’s security, and upholding our principles, the Gospel is pointing to something much more significant: the need to be vigilant for the coming of the one factor capable of actually changing the sorry dynamics of human life – the one described in the Gospel as the Bridegroom – God in the person of Christ.
Light and darkness – prepared and unprepared – wise and foolish – this world and the next — this Gospel sets up a painful and uncomfortable dichotomy for those who want to insist that nothing really matters to God – that it’s all one to God. Well, not according to Jesus, and that message will be repeated emphatically in the Gospel readings for the next two weeks.
The Gospel can be good news even when it’s not telling us exactly what we want to hear. There are hard choices to make in life, and some of our choices may have life-or-death significance, even if we don’t see it that way. To simply know that is wisdom. The Gospel is good news in that it reminds us that there is a God, and an ultimate way of being, and it is God who opens the door into that new life. And Christ the Wisdom of God is the torch, the lamp that we need to keep burning, so we can find our way.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
RCL-appointed readings for Remembrance Sunday:
Wisdom 6: 1—3; 12-21 Listen therefore, O kings, and understand; learn, O judges of the ends of the earth. Give ear, you that rule over multitudes, and boast of many nations. For your dominion was given you from the Lord, and your sovereignty from the Most High; he will search out your works and inquire into your plans. Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate. To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding, and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care, because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.
The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction, and concern for instruction is love of her, and love of her is the keeping of her laws, and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality, and immortality brings one near to God; so the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom. Therefore if you delight in thrones and sceptres, O monarchs over the peoples, honour wisdom, so that you may reign for ever.
1 Thessalonians 4: 12—18 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Matthew 25: 1—13 ‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.