War is hell. Who can argue with these famous words of the Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman? Certainly no one who has seen the photos of soldiers blown apart on a battlefield, or even huddled terrified in foxholes or trenches.
And yet on Remembrance Day the horrors of war, the tragedy of wars, will not be front and center for most people. Why, do you suppose, that is?
Why, for that matter, do we encourage and honour these young members of the Royal Canadian Air Cadets and their officers who are with us this morning, and welcome them to make our parish center the base for their weekly activities?
There are good answers to these questions. Some come from the field of thought called civics, the study of the rights and duties of citizenship. But other answers are specifically Christian and Catholic.
Catholic thinkers have long devoted themselves to the question of war. St Augustine, and later St Thomas Aquinas, provided the foundation for much of the Church’s teaching on the ethics of war.
Augustine taught at length about what’s become known as the just war, teachings further developed by Aquinas. Both saints argue that war is terrible, to be avoided whenever possible, and to be motivated by a desire for peace.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states plainly “Because of the evils and injustices that all war brings with it, we must do everything reasonably possible to avoid it” (CCC 2327).
And Catholic teaching firmly rejects the saying “all’s fair in love and war”—the moral law remains fully in force in time of war. As the Catechism says, “The Church and human reason assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflicts. Practices deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes” (CCC 2328).
Following these ancient principles, the Second Vatican Council declared that when all efforts at peace have failed defensive war may be just and even necessary. The council also stated that those in the military make a genuine contribution to the establishment of peace when they conduct themselves properly (cf. Gaudium et spes, 79).
Such teachings must guide the Christian conscience in time of war. But what can we learn from war in time of peace?
Today’s first reading offers one central lesson. There are things worth dying for.
Although Christian history is full of martyrs who meet their death sooner than deny the Faith, the Jewish martyrs of the Second Book of Maccabees are the equal of any. We heard only part of their story today—chapter seven of this powerful Old Testament book records the death of all seven of the brothers.
Most moving of all, it tells how their mother, when given the chance to persuade her sons to give in and save their lives, encourages them forcefully to accept death sooner than violate the Law of Moses.
The virtue of integrity might be enough to justify the courage of the seven sons and their mother, who is herself executed when the last of them is gone. Surely the world is a better place because some people are prepared to resist tyranny even unto death.
But there’s more to the story, and it has great importance to the Christian understanding of war and its sacrifices.
By the time the Second Book of Maccabees was composed, only about a century before the birth of Christ, many Jews had come to believe in the resurrection of the dead. If you read the whole story of the mother and her sons, you’ll find that one of her motives in urging them to resist is her belief in life after death.
“Accept death,” she tells the youngest brother, “so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again together with your brothers” (2 Mac 7: 9).
The young man himself tells the murderous king Antiochus “our brothers after enduring a brief suffering have drunk of overflowing life” (7:36).
In today’s passage we already heard the first brother proclaim his faith in the life to come: “He said to his torturers, ‘One cannot but choose to die at the hands of humans and to cherish the hope God gives of being raised by him” (7:14).
Elsewhere in the part of the story we don’t read today, another brother says with his last breath “you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws” (7:9).
These Jewish heroes speak words that should resonate in every Christian heart on Remembrance Day. Even as we lament the tragic loss of lives, most of them young, we reflect on the eternal life promised to those who die fighting for truth and justice and freedom.
It’s timely that this civic day of remembering happens during the month of November, when Catholics pray for all the dead. Faith in life everlasting is a cornerstone of our belief and central to our personal relationship with the Lord, who is “God not of the dead, but of the living.”
At 11 tomorrow morning, our voices should be silent, but our hearts should be speaking with God in prayer.