The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month — today, we mark a century since the end of World War I.
It was called the “Great War” and the “war to end all wars,” but the aftermath suggests otherwise.
In the first industrialized war, we saw the terror of the modern age fully unleashed. A war that stated with horses ended with tanks and planes.Poisonous gasses, automatic weapons, aerial warfare — these “advancements” unleashed hell across the various fronts. Technology prolonged what would have been a months-long imperial skirmish into a years-long horror show in the trenches.
The result of this “great” war was a lost generation full of talented artists and thinkers reflecting the devastation they witnessed. Consider the rise of post-modern philosophy and art, rejecting the modernist certainty of the Enlightenment and industrialization. Contemporary theology, so certain of human ability, collapsed as “Social Gospel” theologians cheered the war effort. In the visual arts, the Dadaist movement abandoned traditional aesthetics in favor of stark, non-representational collages and absurdism. In All Quiet on the Western Front, scenes of inane boredom and youthful antics bump up against sudden horrors spilling across the page in awful detail — only to gut the audience in its final pages. An entire genre of “War Poetry” gave rise to the howling cries of scarred veterans. In the cultural aftermath of the war, as economic gains papered over the war’s destruction, these artists revealed the true cost of the war. They bore witness to the land destroyed and the lives lost.
The war ended and set in motion a catastrophic series of events that led to the rise of Hitler’s Nazi party — from industrialized warfare to industrialized murder in twenty-five years. The devastation visited upon Russia led to the Bolshevik uprising, the USSR, Stalin, and the Cold War — thus also Korea in under forty years. Ho Chi Minh, living in France and hoping for allied support as empires began to crumble, was rebuffed by European powers re-distributing control of the world. He turned instead to the USSR, setting up the Vietnam War sixty years later. In toppling the Ottoman Empire and re-drawing the maps of the Middle East without concern for the intricacies of sect or ethnicity, the victors laid the foundations for the extreme wing of Wahhabism that birthed al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Instead of ending all wars, the First World War birthed violent conflict for the next hundred years.
The day the war ended, fighting continued up until the stroke of 11. That very morning, soldiers prepared to carry out assaults.
After the guns ceased their fire, the nations of the world set aside the 11th of November as a day of remembrance — in the US, known as Veterans Day.
By some accident of history, the civic and liturgical calendars have collided on November 11th: today is also the Feast of Saint Martin of Tours, the patron saint of soldiers.
Martin was a member of the Roman cavalry during his time as a catechumen (that is, during his formation prior to Holy Baptism). According to legend, he was confronted by a beggar poorly clothed; Martin took the cloak from his uniform and cut it in two, giving half to the beggar for warmth. That night, Christ appeared to the young Martin in a dream, holding the half-cloak and saying to the angels, “Martin has clothed me in his cloak.” Martin was later baptized, lived as a hermit, and became a bishop.
Martin’s cut cloak became a relic prized by early Frankish kings. The name for chapels and their attendant pastors, chaplains, come from this capella (“little cloak”). While chaplains serve in many settings, they maintain a common focus: providing for the spiritual needs of those far from home. Today, many chaplains serve members of the military like Saint Martin, doing ministry in the most difficult of circumstances. They lead worship in beautiful old chapels on historic bases, in mess tents, and from the tailgates of vehicles.
As I reflect on the “Great” War and its lasting harm, I can’t help but think of this great soldier and his lasting legacy. The Kaiser, the Tsar, the King, the presidents and prime ministers — they attempted to do great work and tore the world apart. The humble soldier attempted to do something simple and achieved greatness. May we learn from Martin’s example.
More than that, though, may we share in his faith.
What is it that will end war?
Is it war? No.
Is it clothing the naked and feeding the hungry? Possibly on occasion. Let’s give it a try.
Is it it the coming Reign of Christ, our Risen Lord, the Prince of Peace? Yes.
Come, Lord Jesus.
There is no sermon today; I was fortunate enough to hand the pulpit over to my bishop for the day and to enjoy hearing a sermon rather than writing one. In place of the usual homily, I present the above thoughts on World War I and Saint Martin.