The keeping of 15 August

02 November 2006

IN HIS memoirs, Some Day I'll Find You, Fr Harry Williams CR described how, at the end of the Second World War, All Saints', Margaret Street, in London, was packed for a high mass on VJ Day, which coincided with the feast of the Assumption. In a coup de théâtre, the Vicar, the Revd Cyril Tomkinson, went up into the pulpit, and began his sermon slowly and portentously: "Today is  . . . Napoleon's birthday."

After 60 years, the events of August 1945 have for most people receded into history. But for those for whom they were not a personal experience, they are not as unreachable, and for future generations probably never will be, as are the Napoleonic Wars and the battle of Trafalgar, whose 200th anniversary falls in October this year. Not only are many who lived through the Second World War still alive: through film and recording, and archive material, the young can see more of the action and learn more about the military and political decisions than most participants in the war saw and knew at the time. There has never been greater popular interest in recent historic events, now made accessible on TV in a way that combines education and entertainment.

But history does not confine itself to those categories: it intrudes into the present. The use of the atomic bomb revealed a destructive power that still lies in human hands. The anxious West looks on as Iran and other countries develop their nuclear potential. The world wrestles with the long-term consequences of the post-war deconstruction of empire, the founding of the modern state of Israel, and the triumph of the United States to become the leader of the Western world. In Japan and Germany, the stability of the post-war world-view is called into question as the certainties of defeat are challenged. China moves centre stage. Antagonists of US power make their views known by desperate actions.

"And the angel said unto her, 'Fear not. . .' " Christians, as they did in 1945, celebrate on Monday the principal festival of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the woman who was more than chief witness to the birth of Jesus, an event that Christians hold by definition to be supreme over all merely human events of history, in that it marked the beginning of God's unique self-expression to the fullest degree possible in a human life. To regard that event as supreme is indeed remarkable; for it implies that the greatest harm men and women can do to one another lies not in physical destruction, but only in separating one another from God; and that even here they have been forestalled: "For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

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