“Above all, take the shield of faith”
Most of you came into the church through the main entrance as did their Honours, the Honourable J.J. Grant and her Honour, Mrs. Joan Grant. As you did you passed under an inscription just above the doors. “Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God,” it reads. I wonder how many of you noticed it. But don’t worry. You are in good company. Hundreds and hundreds of parishioners over more than a hundred years haven’t noticed either!
A most curious phrase it comes from that most philosophical of all the books of the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes. It speaks metaphorically and poetically about the spiritual purpose of the holy places, places which are to be entered upon intentionally, paying attention to where we are and what we are doing, especially here this morning. I wonder if the men of the 112th took notice of it as they came here for Divine Service in the winter, spring and early summer of 1916, wondering if it was simply code for more marching, but perhaps wondering, too, about the war over there.
A tablet erected by the congregation of Christ Church commemorates those of the parish who gave their lives in the Great War. Placed on the other side of the font from where the Colours of the 112th rest, it also commemorates “the placing in this Church of the Colours of the 112th Battalion C.E.F whose Officers and Men were faithful attendants at the services of the Church previous to their Departure for overseas in Defense of the Empire, July 1916”. Today we celebrate that commemoration of the laying up of the Colours of the 112th Battalion. You are sitting where the Officers and Men of the 112th sat a hundred years ago in the months leading up to their embarkation to England and to the theatres of war on the continent of Europe.
The hymn which we sang was written by Mrs. Annie L. Pratt who also designed and executed the Colours. The hymn was composed from a poem which she wrote in 1915. The hymn captures something of the hopes and fears that defined the war generations both of the First World War and the Second. It draws upon the language of the scriptures about God’s providential care, “a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night”, images from the Exodus journey in the wilderness of the people of Israel. There are as well scriptural references to strength and wisdom, to justice and light, to life and peace. Throughout the hymn and in the story of the 112th Battalion, there is the sense of being caught up into something momentous and all-defining. It was the war that changed all wars, the war that shattered civilisation. It had a profound impact upon rural and small town Nova Scotia.
“The War changed everything”, as Timothy Findley has one of his characters remark in his great Canadian classic novel, The Wars. It did change everything and in ways that are hard but important for us to consider. As he shows, the technology of war perverted both nature and our humanity. Earth, water, air and fire at once life-sustaining elements become life-threatening and life-destroying through gas and mortar, guns and flame-throwers in a relentless quest to destroy more and more efficiently. “They couldn’t. They wouldn’t. They did”, is his way of stating the obvious about the technology of war and its destructive legacies which have continued to define the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. A sobering check upon our own technocratic exuberances, perhaps.
“The world turns and the world changes”, T.S. Eliot remarks, “But one thing does not change,/ In all my years, one thing does not change:/ However you disguise it, this thing does not change:/ The perpetual struggle of Good and Evil./ Forgetful, you neglect your shrines and churches”. Keeping your foot is about remembering and paying attention to the enormous sacrifices which so many made for principles and ideas, for truths held sacred. And that is well worth commemorating.
We heard in the lessons read by Colonel Orr and by Mr. Seagram about the panoply of war in the images of sword and spear, about such armour as breast-plate, helmet and shield. Flags or colours are also part of the imagery and pageantry of war. They have a profound symbolic purpose. They serve as icons of identity for the community and culture of which we are a part. The Colours of the 112th decorated and embroidered by Annie Pratt symbolize the commitment to truths held sacred by the men who served and by the communities from which they came before going off to unspeakable horrors in places they could hardly name. The Colours are like the Shield of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad which conveys artistically and symbolically the entire world view of the ancient Greeks, displaying the full range of human activities, depicting both the images of a city at peace and a city at war. So, too, in her hymn there is the strong yearning for peace and life, for light and justice in the face of tyranny, death and destruction. “In all the world bid wars to cease,/ Give victory Father, give Thy peace”, sentiments which surely resonate with us a hundred years later.
She would have known from the liturgy here that the peace of God “passeth all understanding”. The peace which Christ gives is not as the world gives. It is peace in the soul even in the face of the hell of war. It is that sensibility which connects the themes of war to religion and to the Church. The Rector of this Parish, George Rigby Martell, was instrumental in the formation of the 112th, becoming a captain and chaplain. He died while in service and the rood screen, as it is called, just behind and above me, was erected in 1920 in his memory. Rood does not mean bad manners. Rood is an old English word meaning Cross. There can be no peace without sacrifice and commitment.
The prophet Micah talks about swords being turned into plowshares and spears into pruning-hooks, images that relate to the farmlands of the Avon, to the ideals of peace and prosperity. Paul in Ephesians uses the accoutrements of war to symbolise Christian life. It is a kind of warfare in which we contend against spiritual principles, against all that withstands the word and will of God. “Taking the shield of faith”, he argues, we have the wherewithal “to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.” There is a struggle, a struggle for what is right and good and true. War is an ever present reminder of that struggle.
The struggle is there for everyone regardless of religious or non-religious commitments. It is the struggle for the good against evil, the struggle to live principled and responsible lives for Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and for agnostics and atheists alike. The struggle, to use an Arabic and Islamic term, sadly often misappropriated and misunderstood, is the jihad of the soul, the spiritual struggle to be faithful to what we are called to be and to who we are.
The Colours of the 112th symbolize that struggle and its meaning for us today. It is amazing to think that 1200 men in the space of six months signed up to be part of the 112th Battalion, one hundred and thirty of them from Hants County alone. And even though the Battalion was dissolved in 1917 and its members scattered through a host of other regiments, the sense of identity and connection to the 112th remained very strong. It certainly did for the community.
Behind me in the sanctuary to the left of the altar is a prayer desk which commemorates Clarence Cereno Currell Purdy of the 112th Battalion, C.EF. “who died a Prisoner of War at Limbeck, Germany, October 1917, aged 21 years”. He was from Bridgetown. The prayer desk was made by his father and presented to the Parish in memory of their son and in recognition of his having been here in worship.
The Colours of the 112th Battalion, like the shield of faith, recall us to such sacrifices as embraced in the meaning and purpose of this place. They are laid up here in conscious association with Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross represented in the central window above the altar. It signifies the sacrifice which redeems the world and reveals the deep love of God for our humanity, all the follies and madness of war notwithstanding. We do well, it seems to me, to take Paul’s words to heart.
“Above all, take the shield of faith”
(Rev’d) David Curry
June 12th, 2016
Laying Up of the Colours of the 112th