In Flanders Fields

Ninety-eight years ago tomorrow, the guns fell silent on the Western Front, marking the conclusion of the most horrific war humanity had yet seen. On the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, the signing of the Armistice at last brought some semblance of peace across lands ravaged by barbed wire, craters, and trenches. This day is marked with great solemnity in several countries as Remembrance Day, and here in the United States as Veterans Day, where we remember the sacrifices of the dead, and of the living who remain to testify to life’s tenacity even in the midst of death.

In 1915, as shells continued to rain and poison gas crept across the battered countryside near the Belgian town of Ypres, a young medic named Lt. Col. John McCrae was able to look out into the destruction and to find a sign of life emerging through barrenness of war: the poppy. Inspired, he composed a poem, peaceful in tone and image but strong in resolution, paying tribute to the dead and also granting a mission to the living:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.

Instead of dwelling upon the hideousness of war, McCrae instead meditated on the humanity of those who had fallen, and the life that endured beyond their passing. It is poignant that he observed the poppy interspersed with the cross, which in our faith symbolizes the great victory of life over death. He exhorts the living to take up this life with a purpose, and to hold high the torch carried by those who went before.

Written during the height of hostilities, the torch of which McCrae spoke was evidently that of victory in battle; the struggle begun needed to be won by those who remained. In our time, we now enjoy a period of relative peace and stability that must have appeared at times a dream in those days where total war seemed to engulf much of the world. Even as conflicts still ravage different parts of the globe, and as young men and women still courageously enlist in the armed services, far fewer of us today will ever need to personally confront a scene alike to that of Flanders in 1915. Yet, we come across situations in our lives where we may glimpse other kinds of bleakness, and feel the loss of those with whom we lived, felt dawn, and saw sunset glow. Where there is a temptation to despair, we are instead urged to continue living with resolve, taking up the torch, not of combat, but of bringing light to those who may feel trapped in trenches of sadness, anxiety, or bitterness.

Tomorrow, let us remember in prayer those who have fallen, and our veterans young and old who generously served and remain to share their stories with us. May we each carry the torch that has been entrusted to us, and witness to the life that endures in the midst of death, just as poppies blow in Flanders Fields.