Children of the Resurrection

By Joshua Paetkau

On November 14, 1940, 515 bombers from the German Luftlotte 3 — one the three primary divisions of the Luftwaffe — rose high in the air above the English town of Coventry to launch one of the most devastating bombing campaigns that town would ever see.

At around 8 in the evening, the Cathedral Church of St. Michael the Archangel filled not with the sweet, gentle sounds of Evensong offered on the lips of men and women to the living God. No, instead the saintly archangel was greeted with the shrill hymn of battle offered by this unholy choir to the strange gods of death.

The Luftwaffe had codenamed the mission “Moonlight Sonata,” and that evening Coventry Cathedral fell in flames — a victim of the lawlessness of war. Coventry was an industrial town whose industries included a munitions factory. In the words of the historian Frederick Taylor, “Coventry was therefore, in terms of what little law existed on the subject, a legitimate target for aerial bombing.”

Whether legitimate — in the human laws that governs the action of war — or not, it was an act of spiritual defiance and moral treason. St. Michael’s old enemy, the devil, had taken once again to the skies, confirming the title St. Paul gives to Satan in Ephesians 2:2: “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit now at work in the children of disobedience.”

Paul proceeds, in that letter, to warn of the common condition that we share with those whom we may face as enemies in this world: “We too were, by nature, children of wrath,” he writes, “walking according to the course of this world, but even though we were dead in trespasses and sins, God has made us alive together with Christ. It is by grace that you have been saved.”

The prince of the power of the air will not have the final say. The final dominion belongs not to death but to Christ. “Christ himself,” as Paul adds, “is our peace and has torn down the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing with himself the law of commandments and decrees. He did this to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace and reconciling both of them to God in one body through the cross, by which he extinguished their hostility.”

On that night in November, the Coventry Cathedral perished in flames brought down from the heavens by the hostile and rebellious hearts of the children of wrath. In strictly human terms, that should have been the end of the story.

It was a story that brought the people of Coventry closer to the story of the Jewish people, whose place of worship had been destroyed by the invading army of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar 586 years before the birth of Jesus. By the time the prophet Haggai arrived on the scene, the glorious beauty of the first temple existed only in the memories of those few who were still alive — the remnant. “Who among you remembers this house in its former glory?” laments the prophet. “How does it look to you now? Does it not seem like nothing?”

Amazingly, miraculously, the message that Haggai brings is not one of despair, not of one grief, not one of nostalgia.

Instead he brings a message of encouragement, a message of reconstruction, a message of resurrection. “Be strong,” he says, and he speaks to the governor, and to the priest, and to all the people of the land. This is not just a political message, not even just a religious message.

“Be strong,” writes the prophet, “my Spirit is still with you. Do not be afraid. The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house, and in this place I will grant peace,” says the Lord Almighty.

The people of Coventry, in the years following the war, could have succumbed to the powers of darkness, to the evil vision of a humanity tearing itself apart, but they did not. The priest of the cathedral, Father Richard Thomas Howard, had been on the roof the cathedral on the night of the blitz, before the flurry of incendiary bombs forced him to flee to safety.

In the aftermath of the war he became a staunch advocate of forgiveness and reconciliation. He had the words Father, Forgive inscribed in the ruined chancel of the cathedral. Not Father forgive them, but simply Father, Forgive, as a reminder that we are all in need of God’s forgiveness.

Father Howard was determined that the new Cathedral that was to be built would speak powerfully of the resurrection of Christ, just as the old Gothic cathedral had mirrored his crucifixion. This vision for renewal was strong, not only in the design of the building, but in the types of human relationships that were made possible.

When the sculptor Jacob Epstein was chosen to build a sculpture of the cathedral’s patron saint, Michael, some of the members of reconstruction committee objected on the grounds that Epstein was a Jew. To this the architect Basil Spence replied, “So was Jesus Christ.” To this no reply could be made. It was the truth.

The people of Coventry decided to follow the prince of peace, rather than the prince of the power of the air. The vision that inspired them was diametrically opposed to the one that had driven those 515 bombers to take flight over their city on that November night. They chose to bear witness to the great human need for forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation, and to accept the eternal strength and comfort that Jesus offers to us.

Each day, at noon, a Litany of Reconciliation is prayed at Coventry Cathedral. We will use this same prayer as our confession this morning: our confession of the deep sinfulness that wounds this world and harms each one of us, and our acknowledgement of the even greater power of God to heal, forgive, and to restore to life.

When the Sadducees tried to trap Jesus, they tried to use the technicalities of marriage to prove that the dead could not be raised to life. In effect, what they say is that marriage only makes sense within the context of death; therefore the dead cannot be raised.

One gets the sense that, even if they were to see someone raised from the dead, the Sadducees would strongly disapprove. One can even imagine them saying, “In terms of what little law exists on the subject, there is no legitimate target for resurrection. Let the dead stay dead, let the sinners remain unforgiven.”

Marriage, as the sacramental unity of two persons, is intended to be a sign of life, of commitment, of intimacy, of the possibility of forgiveness. The Sadducees, it seems, looked into this mystery and saw only death, division, and divorce. They looked at marriage and saw divorce, just as the Luftwaffe heard Moonlight Sonata and envisioned the destruction of a city.

This is the effect of sin. Sin wants the dead to stay dead, it wants us to hang on to old grudges, to seek vengeance. Sin loudly proclaims the law of punishment and wrath, but ignores the deeper and more powerful laws of forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation.

Sin preaches hostility and eternal separation from God, but it is no match for the power of the living Word of God, which has come to preach peace to those who are far off and those who are near, as St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians. Christ Jesus has come in the flesh to break down all hostilities. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens,” writes Paul, “but fellow citizens with the saints and all the household of God. In Christ you also are being built into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”

Those who fought in the world wars, and indeed in any war, have firsthand experience of the dangers of lawlessness and hatred. We live, today, in an age when the dangers of nationalism, fear, and hatred of others once again threatens. The hard-learned lessons of the past are constantly in danger of being forgotten.

We need to remember — to remember is to work for peace, to remember is to seek justice, to remember is to keep the cause of truth alive. The paths of lawless violence and lifeless legalism are open, but we are called to walk a different road — the one God in Christ has prepared for us: the road of forgiveness, reconciliation — the road of redemption.

The children of resurrection look death in the face, and they see beyond it. They see beyond it, for they are God’s children, and to God all are alive. Where the Sadducees read the words of Moses and saw only a neatly divided world ending in death, Jesus saw through the words and found Moses — a man to whom God had revealed himself.

It is through Jesus that we come to know the power of resurrection, of new and eternal life, in our lives, our communities, our nation, and our world. In response to his grace and beauty, men, women, and children have offered their morning prayer, the sounds of Evensong have graced the twilight, and we have contemplated the mystery of his love and power in the Holy Eucharistic. We remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, we await his coming in glory.

As we remember his death, we remember all those who have died in Christ, the soldiers and the civilians, and who hold fast the promise of being reborn into his glorious resurrection. It is a remembrance, and a hope, that is for all people.

In a diary entry recorded on January 11, 1942, Corp. Lance Ross of Paspébiac, Quebec — imprisoned at a P.O.W. camp — notes the occurrence of a church service at which “All People That on Earth Do Dwell” was sung. Perhaps it brought him some hope in a dark time. I pray that it did. That they were able to sing that song in the face of what they suffered is a sign of God’s faithfulness, and we are called to look for such signs of grace and to honor them when we see them. “His faithfulness at all times stood, and shall from age to age endure.”


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