REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY is a time when churches honour war dead and pray for peace. But the Gospel looks forward rather than back: to Advent, the Second Coming, the Judgement. The Greek word for this is Parousia. Remembrance is easy to prepare for, because it comes round yearly, whereas we are still awaiting Parousia.
Christians have waited long for this Parousia (1 Thessalonians 4.15), an idea that combines elements of “coming” (dynamic) and “presence” (static). But our impressions of it are confused. The coming of Christ has been pictured as a last judgement, a sifting of wheat from chaff, a separating of sheep from goats (and what is wrong with goats, we may well ask?).
Poetry calls it a day of wrath. Paintings depict torture for those who fall into the pit. Music thrills us with cataclysmic drama. No one wants to be consigned to damnation, but, when we look at the saved — wearing the uniform of salvation as they march robotically into light — we do not fancy being them, either. Eternal agony or eternal boredom is not much of a choice.
Looking for something both sensitive and constructive in these lections, we may wonder how the Parousia is a helpful theme for Remembrance Sunday, if salvation is only for the righteous. The current conflict in Ukraine has shown that war is sometimes an inevitable outcome of the clash of good and evil (though that take on Putin’s fight may be simplistic). Not everyone is a Christian, never mind a good Christian. So not everyone sees weakness as strength, pace Paul (2 Corinthians 12.10).
All war is bad, but not all war is wrong. That seems to me a realistic attitude, though others will disagree. I once spent several years studying battle narratives in the Roman historians, and I admire Julius Caesar’s portrayal of the courage of his centurions, within his self-justifying Gallic Wars commentaries. They contain truths about human courage, even if their main purpose lies more in directing Caesar’s political future than in accurate historical reporting.
I also admire the very different reportage in Spike Milligan’s war diaries (likewise, coincidentally, in seven books), which begin with Adolf Hitler: My part in his downfall. Boredom and chaos, we discover there, are as much a part of warfare as courage, loyalty, and self-sacrifice.
In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul explains how Christians will experience union with Christ. He does not describe the Parousia as a “last battle”. Jesus, too, keeps it simple, giving no backstory to explain why the foolish virgins had not kept their lamps ready, or why their error was so egregious as to shut them out from the party, when, doubtless, there were lamps aplenty on the other side of the closed door.
Our problem with interpreting today’s Gospel in a context of remembrance is social, not theological. Why did the wise virgins not share their lamp oil with the foolish ones, in the way that soldiers whose rations are running low might do, to ensure that all had something rather than some having nothing? The message seems to be that the wedding banquet is for some, not for all.
It may be that our generation has something genuinely positive and fresh to add to the interpretation of this parable; for we have rightly become cautious about dividing people into “good” and “bad”. We recognise, too, that faith is not a badge of Christian superiority, but a gift — and a gift, moreover, to which people have varying degrees of access and opportunity. We who have received the gospel are not necessarily better than those by whom it has been misheard, or not heard at all. Sharing the lamp oil would surely have been a better, more humane, response.
The key to creating mutual support and nurture, among soldiers, or Christians, or churches, or communities, is to foster in individuals a sense that their own well-being is interwoven with that of others in the group. One day, we hope and trust that this sense, for which the Bible term is koinonia, will extend to the whole human family, rather than individual sections of it.
However sincerely we intercede for “the poor” or “the oppressed” or “the refugees” in war, our prayers will not take on a heartfelt (rather than a principled) quality until we learn to see them as our fellows, and our own well-being as bound up with theirs.