Reflections on Remembrance Day
It all seems so far away–
Those wars that ended before I was born
The soldiers who died for a cause they believed:
To defeat a foe who would irreparably change
our world for the worse if left unchecked
I don’t remember much world history
or all those dates! When did who sign what?
With whom, and where? Which conflict were they ending?
Ah, yes. The wars old men begin, then sent their youth
to win, to fight, to die.
I do remember the age on the white
grave marker at Groesbeek: 17 years old.
Not legal to vote. Most weren’t 21. Not legal to drink.
I stood aghast, reading terrible facts in peace and safety
and I wept for their mothers.
Why Remembrance Day? My Personal Experience
My first encounter with the traditions surrounding Remembrance Day was the year I married a Canadian and moved to Canada from the USA. There had been school observances of Veteran’s Day in the USA as I was growing up, but I have no lasting memories of them.
Approaching the week of November 11, during my first few months as a Canadian resident, I encountered teenagers at the mall in military garb, holding hawker trays filled with odd-looking red plastic flowers.
“Would you like a poppy?” one of the young men asked me.
I shook my head and moved quickly past. I had no idea what it was for, and I certainly had no need for a fake flower.
As I walked through the mall, I encountered others in uniform, all asking the same question. I began to notice a poppy on the lapels of many shoppers. That evening, I noticed the TV news anchor and weather person were both wearing poppies. I asked my husband what the poppy symbolized. He said it was a way to raise money to help veterans. That satisfied my curiosity, so I forgot about it until the following November, when the boxes were at every checkout and the uniformed teens were back at the mall. It took several years before I realized that wearing a poppy was considered a sign of respect for those who had died serving their country.
Almost a decade passed before I began to discover the greater significance behind this tradition of Remembrance Day. While leading a 1990 choir tour in Europe, our concert schedule included performances in the Netherlands. Unlike other countries that have just one day for remembrance, the Netherlands sets aside two days. May 4, Remembrance Day, is a day of solemn commemoration for those who died. There is a solemn procession to cemeteries where wreaths of poppies are laid, then the observers quietly process to the church for a religious service with prayers, candle lighting and a brief homily.
May 5, “Liberation Day” is a day of fun and joy, parades and fireworks, to annually celebrate the day of the country’s liberation from five years of occupation by the German army during WW2. The people of the Netherlands love Canadians, as it was the Canadian army who liberated their country. Schoolchildren honour Canadians by helping maintain the Canadian cemeteries in the Netherlands.
What permanently bound my heart to Remembrance Day and to the annual tradition of wearing a poppy was another choir tour I led in 1995, the 50th Anniversary of the end of WW2. We toured the region in Belgium known as “Flanders Fields”, visiting several battle sites, war museums, memorials and a Canadian cemetery. The museum had video footage and interpretive displays, indoors and out. The amount of suffering, death and destruction shook me to the core. The horrific numbers of so many young lives lost in the defence of freedom. On one grave marker, the age of the soldier was only 17 years old. Many of the dead were under 22 years of age. I stood by their graves and wept for them, for their mothers, fathers, and families.
Since that tour, I honour their memory and sacrifice every November. Remembrance Day itself will always be splattered with memories, festooned with pride, saluted with respect and soaked with tears – a different experience for each one of us. But in our freedom to remember and gather, we also pray for those who live in places where the freedom we enjoy has not yet been won.
May I not be so satisfied with my comfortable life that I refuse to sacrifice anything for the sake of bringing others into physical freedom, and more importantly, into the eternal freedom of God’s kingdom. Lord, help me to determine what I need to do today to change that.
A Prayer for Remembrance Day
You are the one who teaches us to remember. You wept at the death of your friend, and you are near those who are brokenhearted. We learn from Your word that war, conflict, evil, and death are not how You created the world to be, but that You walk with us through the midst of it all, and You constantly work to bring good out of every dark place.
Give us a sense of awe for the past that points us towards the unseen – where your hand has intervened and we did not know it. Help us solemnly remember the past so that we do not repeat the errors of the past. Help us know that what we have not experienced personally, has still affected our existence by the sacrifice, discipline, and the infinite number of choices made by those who came before. Help us to choose what is right, true, honourable, and just so that those who come after us will not have to suffer as our ancestors did.
Teach us how to let go of the pain and regret that paralyzes us. Grant us grace and forgiveness toward others and toward ourselves. Help us close the gap between what happened and what we remember. Help us to tell the stories and allow stories to be told by others. Let us be informed by them and help us never to minimze another’s pain.
Thank you for the many people who record these stories, preserve physical objects, build memorials, maintain cemeteries and curate museums so that we may learn from and remember our shared history. Grant us wisdom to not make the same mistakes. Help us to understand the dangers of forgetting history and the times when love must leave some pages blank.
Help us always honour and remember those who sacrificed their lives so that we may live in peace and safety. Help us remember your own ultimate sacrifice so that we may live eternally.
– Written by Joyce Rempel and Remembrance Prayer adapted from The Spiritual Practice of Remembering