A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 14 November 2021 by Revd Jonathan Evens
Readings of address: Daniel 12.1-3; Hebrews 10.11-14 [15-18]19-25; Mark 13.1-8
In 1917 Private David Jones of the Welsh Fusiliers was out searching for firewood. He was in the Ypres section of the Western Front. ‘As I was always cold, one of my main occupations was to hunt for any wood that was dry and could be used to make a decent fire.’ ‘Just a little way back, between our support trench and the reserve line, I noticed that a byre or outhouse … still stood and its roofing appeared to be intact … I thought that looks to be the most likely place where there might wooden objects or, with a bit of luck, a wood-store perfectly dry and cut ready for use. So I went to investigate, but there was no door on that side. I found a crack against which I put my eye expecting to see empty darkness.’i
Instead, he saw something that changed his life. He could make out an altar constructed from of ammunition boxes. On it were two candles. As his eye adjusted to the light, he could see half a dozen infantrymen kneeling on the floor. And in front of them, a robed Catholic priest celebrated Mass. The tinkling of a bell broke the silence, followed by Latin words, gently spoken. He realised he recognised some of the men. He felt the oneness between the priest and those tough soldiers gathered round him in the half-darkness; a unity of spirit beyond anything he had previously experienced. He was amazed, too, that this Mass was happening so close to the frontline.
In this sight a saving and redeeming God emerged from the devastating brutality and squalor of the trenches. David Jones found Christ in the darkest of places. As he witnessed his first Mass in an outhouse amid the wasteland of the western front, he started to seek for hope among the ruins.ii This hope was found in the unity of spirit he observed because, as he later wrote, ‘the Mass makes sense of everything.’iii
After the war he became both a painter of sacramental images and a poet who wrote two epic poems. The first is about his experience of being wounded during the attack on Mametz Wood in July 1916, when about 4,000 Welsh soldiers died. It has been described as ‘a book about how, even in the most appalling circumstances,’ we ‘can still discern beneath the surface of experience an ultimate significance in life.’iv The second is a long meditation on a man attending Mass sometime during the Second World War which encompasses the entire history of humankind because the Mass makes sense of everything.
His work is about remembrance and the ways in which remembrance transforms us in the present. It takes the shattered fragments of wartime experiences putting them together with the key stories of humanity to form poems that were bigger and more beautiful that their fragmented parts. In doing so, he mirrors the action of Christ in the incarnation and crucifixion as he goes down into the depths of destruction in order then to bring together the fragments of our broken lives.
Some years ago, Fiona MacMillan created a wonderful image of that incarnational activity in a photograph of a broken host to publicise the 2018 disability conference Something Worth Sharing. In this image: ‘seven contrasting hands belong to members of St Martin’s community aged 7 to 90, of diverse gender, ethnicity, disability and experience. Each have a piece of the host: Each has something worth sharing without which some part would be missing.’ Fiona concludes, ‘The broken host is a reminder of Jesus, his life broken and shared. For me, it echoes the words of Donald Eadie, Methodist theologian whose life changed with a disabling spinal condition: ‘My world cracked open and life broke through’. Being broken is sometimes the way new life begins’.’
As today’s reading from Hebrews reminds us, Christ’s was a once-for-all action that is then re-presented and re-membered in and through the Eucharist. The Eucharist being the most significant and meaningful form of Remembrance. We bring the broken fragments of our lives, including the shattering destruction of wartime experiences throughout the centuries, to the one whose own body was broken on the cross but who endured that experience out of love for us to bring us through brokenness into reconciliation and resurrection. In return we receive his body and blood into our lives through a fragment of bread and a sip of wine. Our life is joined to his. The broken fragments of our lives are gathered up and incorporated into the story of God’s saving work with humanity. The fragments of our lives are accepted – overaccepted – and unified as we are brought together to form a new body – the body of Christ – in which all things find their place and where all shall be well and all manner of thing be well.
God takes us and our offerings and places them in a far larger story than we ever could have imagined by giving them a sacred story and making them sacred actions. As we retell and re-enact what Jesus did at the Last Supper, we also remember what God did to Israel in ‘taking one special people, blessing them, then breaking them in the Exile before giving them as a light to the nations to bring the Gentiles to God.’ ‘In the telling of those stories and the performance of those actions we are transformed into God’s holy people.’v That’s what the regular celebration of the Eucharist is about. When the Eucharist is served, each of us offers all that we uniquely are at the altar and we receive from God everything we need to follow him by being a blessing to others in our daily lives. In this way, as David Jones claimed, the Mass makes sense of everything, even the destruction and damage of war. Not by explaining it away or even explaining it at all but by plumbing its depths to find a way through to renewal and restoration.
We remember that story, not simply by recalling it to mind but by re-enacting and re-inhabiting it. We join our story to that of God’s activity in the world by playing a part within that story because we are, as David Jones once wrote, ‘creatures with bodies, whose nature it is to do this, or that, rather than think it.’vi This is what it means to live sacramentally and to truly remember. So, in the Eucharist we see, we touch, we hear, we taste our God. As Sam Wells has said: ‘The Eucharist is a whole-body experience of truthful living in a new society as God’s companions together forever.’vii Only one thing more remains. We must ask, as have all those who, like David Jones, experienced war and survived, what do we need to remake the whole world like this? What do we need to do to make the whole world a Eucharist?
St Augustine said: ‘You are the Body of Christ. In you and through you the work of the incarnation must go forward. You are to be taken. You are to be blessed, broken and distributed, that you may be the means of grace and vehicles of eternal love.’ Sam has explained that: ‘The elements of bread and wine are taken, blessed, broken and shared just as Jesus was taken, blessed, broken and shared. In a similar way the congregation as a whole is taken out of its ordinary pursuits; blessed with the grace and truth of forgiveness and scripture; broken in the disciplines of intercession, peacemaking and food-sharing; and shared with the world in love and service. As the bread and wine are offered, transformed and received, the congregation, and through it the whole creation, is offered, transformed and received.’viii
Although he suffered throughout his life from what we know called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, David Jones spent the rest of his life creating poems and paintings that re-call before God events in the past so that they become here and now in their effect on us. He wrote of the Mass as being to do with the re-calling, re-presentation and re-membering of an original act and objects in a form that is different from but connected to the original act or object that is being recalled. Remembering the Lord’s Supper is not simply recalling it to
mind; instead, it is remembered by the re-enacting and re-presenting of the original act. He created poems and paintings that mirror the action of the Eucharist and create a world that is a Eucharist.
In this way he discovered the mission statement of the church, which is to make the world a Eucharist. Amazingly, he discovered this in wartime in the depths of destruction and despair when nation had risen against nation and kingdom against kingdom. That was a real demonstration of the reality that we, as the people of God, are often closer to God in adversity, than in times of comfort.
We are not all artists or poets but, whatever our roles and talents, like David Jones, we too can go out from the Eucharist to make the world a Eucharist. Again, Sam has explained well what this looks like in practice. ‘Faithful service,’ he says, ‘means practices that look like worship—those that gather people and form them as one body, that reconcile and open lives to repentance and forgiveness, that proclaim truth and reveal God’s story, that embrace need and unleash gifts, that express thanks and are open to the Holy Spirit, that share food and wash feet.’ix As we do such things, we will discover what David Jones discovered at the Western Front in 1917, we will create our equivalents of his sacramental poems and paintings, we will reconcile the broken fragments of our lives, we will restore the torn fabric of society, we will make the world into a Eucharist. This is the most significant and meaningful form of remembrance in which we can engage.
In 1917 David Jones went looking for wood for a fire that would temporarily warm him in the trenches. What he found in an outhouse in the Ypres sector of the Western Front was a glow, a fire which he described as ‘goldenness’, that would inspire him throughout his life. In the Mass all the fragments of his life were held together and recreated, he was connected to the bigger story of God’s work in the world throughout human history, and he was inspired to make his world a Eucharist for others to inhabit and experience.
What will you bring to the altar to be gathered up by Jesus today? Will you come forward today to receive Christ in the form of bread into your life and join your story to his, so you can play your part in the story of God’s work with this world? How will you go from here today to make the world a Eucharist tomorrow? David Jones found his answers to those questions in an outhouse on the Western Front. Will you find your answers at St Martin-in-the-Fields this morning? To do so, will be to truly remember on this Remembrance Sunday.
i Rene Hague ed., Dai Greatcoat: a self-portrait of David Jones in his letters, Faber & Faber Ltd, 1980, pp.248-249.
ii Jonathan Miles, Backgrounds to David Jones: a Study in Sources and Drafts, University of Wales Press, 1990, p.64.
iii Letter to Saunders Lewis 3rd March, 1971, published in Agenda, vol. 11, no..4 – vol. 12, no. 1, 1973/4, “Saunders Lewis introduces two Letters from David Jones”, pp.17-29, particularly p. 20.
iv Atholl C. C. Murray, “In Perspective: A Study of David Jones’s ‘In Parenthesis’,” in Critical Quarterly, Autumn, 1974, pp. 254-63.
v Sam Wells, Teaching Eucharist – https://chapel-archives.oit.duke.edu/documents/sermons/Sept20TeachingEucharist-1.pdf
vi Rene Hague ed., Dai Greatcoat: a self-portrait of David Jones in his letters, Faber & Faber Ltd, 1980, p. 232.
vii Sam Wells, Teaching Eucharist – https://chapel-archives.oit.duke.edu/documents/sermons/Sept20TeachingEucharist-1.pdf
viii Sam Wells, Teaching Eucharist – https://chapel-archives.oit.duke.edu/documents/sermons/Sept20TeachingEucharist-1.pdf
ix Sam Wells, Teaching Eucharist – https://chapel-archives.oit.duke.edu/documents/sermons/Sept20TeachingEucharist-1.pdf