Reflecting on the Christian Hope: War Cemeteries

The Christian Hope, of a future heaven and earth, is often an appendix to traditional theologies. More thorough-going theologies rightly make the ‘life to come’ an integral part of theology. From a biblical perspective it should not be any other way. The Bible tells of the good creation of the past and its frustration in pre-history. It reveals how, in Christ, new creation has come. This new creation is both ‘now’ and ‘not yet’. This bifocal eschatology is well-known from Saint Paul’s pneumatology, in which he argues that the Spirit is a seal and deposit guaranteeing a future inheritance (1 Corinthians 1:21–22 and Ephesians 1:13–14). The past frustration of creation is remedied first by Christ’s past deeds, culminating in his rising from death as a first fruit, evident now in the work of the Spirit but only complete in the age to come.

This post is the first of three that reflect on the Christian Hope in terms of experiences of things and events that are important to me. These reflections arise from a conviction that we can be too slow to recognise the impact of our future with God, here and now. One remedy is to look to diverse experiences and interests to fire our imagination about the full promise of our bodily redemption. Each of these posts concerns a subject matter that is of special interest to me. I hope others too, can find some promise in how these specific topics speak of the greatest of all promises.

It is very much my hope that it will be evident that the chosen topics are not simply helpful illustrations. Rather, in each case, there is something that illuminates our future with God in a profound and organic way. The first of these subject matters is the emotive, even pathos-laden, topic of war cemeteries. For some this might sound unhelpfully morbid even if the obvious explicit presence of death at the heart of the subject connects firmly and bluntly with the question of ‘life after death’.

This reflection began during my family holiday in Normandy in France in June of 2019. Our holiday took place just after the 75th Anniversary celebrations of D-Day. In part, it was the historical legacy that took us to France this past summer—partly my continuing lifelong fascination with the events of 6th June 1944 and their immediate aftermath, and partly a wish to ensure my three children knew more of the second world war and its legacy today.

It was only when we arrived in Normandy that we appreciated that the lovely farm that provided our week’s accommodation was right next to the largest German war cemetery on French soil in La Cambe. Even as we drove past it the first time, looking for the farm, it made for a sobering experience. Our visit later that week proved to be more so as I’ll explain below. Before we made it to La Cambe’s cemetery we went to the famous American war cemetery at Coleville-sur-Mer and the British one at Bayeux.

During our visits to these three war cemeteries it become clear that they unsurprisingly had a common impact—the all too obvious horror of grave-after-grave of both known and unknown combatants evoke the Psalmist’s most frequent question of lament, “why?”. In addition to this common ground, however, each had something different to say when viewed from the stance of resurrection hope.

The British War Cemetery in Bayeux echoes an English garden not least because the gravestones are surrounded by plants typically found in an English country garden.

Whatever the intent of the designers of this cemetery I could not escape seeing it as fusion of English gardens with the age to come. Almost certainly there is an element of reading far more than is intended into the layout and form of the cemetery. But for me it hinted at the unfortunate linking of biblical hope and British nationalism that is evoked by the hymn Jerusalem which uses words from William Blake’s poem: And did those feet in ancient time? This poem and the hymn Jerusalem ask:

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

These words might only ask questions, but these seem rather rhetorical, and at the same time plainly false and unhelpful. My reflection is of course not a criticism of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who manage the Bayeux cemetery and so many more sites around Europe—one can only wonder at such a remarkable effort made over so many years.

Elsewhere in the cemetery there is a clear allusion to the Book of Life (Psalm 68:29 Philippians 4:3, and Revelation 21:27) with the bold claim that ‘Their name liveth for ever more’, see photograph below. The availability of written records, made readily available, is almost a sacramental echo of the heavenly book. The principles of the Commonwealth Ward Graves Commission include ensuring the uniformity of the headstones and making no distinction on account of military rank, race or creed. Such principles seem fitting giving the twofold levelling we all experience in first dying and then being redeemed in Christ.

This principle of uniformity of headstone is taken in a different direction in US war cemeteries, including the one at Coleville-sur-Mer, pictured below. The headstones are styled as crosses in most cases on the basis that every soldier was a Christian unless they claimed otherwise. This uniformity of headstone and the precision of their geometry in rows and columns adds more anguish to the vexed question, “why?”.

The dominance of the cross also speaks powerfully of the foundation of our hope. It also echoes the poignant iconographic use of similar crosses in some of the works of the British artist Stanley Spencer (1891–1959) whose life was never the same after his experiences in the First World War. The use of white crosses to denote the idea of resurrection dominates his monumental paintings at Sandham Memorial Chapel.

Spencer was infamous for identifying his beloved home village of Cookham as heaven. But his imagination ventured to the day of resurrection and he perceived the dead rising from their graves, whether on the battlefield as Sandham Memorial Chapel or in the graveyard of Holy Trinity, the parish church in Cookham.

Of course, not everyone buried at Coleville-sur-Mer was a Christian and some headstones reflect this, for example a star of David is evident in the photograph above. If British war cemeteries echo a future idyll of heaven awash with roses and American ones speak of ‘the glorious dead’, what of La Cambe’s war dead?

Putting it in words is difficult. The iconography of gravestone and statue is heavy and chunky as if it would have been inappropriate to aim at beauty. This is especially so in the cross and figures which top the central mound, which is a mass grave for around 300 bodies, both known and unknown. It is also seen in the small crosses, each of which typically marks the grave of four people.

The visitor’s centre is sobering but in a very different sense. It tells the life story of some of those buried in the cemetery. In reading these stories we discover, although we should have known, that many of the dead here are very ordinary men. Men with no strong political view, nor driven by any nationalistic ideals, but men who would rather have stayed at home in a Germany that chose a path of peace. We also find men who only wanted peace after inflicting their worldview on other nations. Some of these men not only killed soldiers on the battlefield but they also killed civilians, men, women, and children.

Just as there are very different approaches to war cemeteries so to each person buried is unique. Only God knows the extent of virtue or vice in each life. He also knows which of these men, struck down before their time, will rise again to resurrection life. This, of course, is not on the basis of the magnitude of our virtues or vices, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God—but on the basis of our hope and belief in the sure and certain hope of resurrection life.

Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

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