At the start of September, two months into my sabbatical, I found myself in Alnwick, Northumberland. If you’ve never been to that part of England, I encourage you to go. It is almost eartbreakingly beautiful, a region of ruins and castles, of startling coastline and soaring moors. Alnwick itself is famous for its castle. It is the home of the Dukes of Northumberland, as well as the site of filming for the first two Harry Potter films.
Northumberland is, I think, what some Christians call a ‘thin place’. That is, it is a place where God seems very close. Not only is Lindisfarne or Holy Island found there, but there are countless sites and signs of Christian history going back the best part of two millennia. This is a place that has been prayed in and prayed over. At the same time, the ruins of castles also reveal it is a place that has been fought over. The signs of power-struggles are everywhere. The evidence of violence and prayer lies on every horizon.
Just on the outskirts of Alnwick’s town centre is one of those huge, striking memorials to the dead raised after the Great War. Three bronze servicemen stand on a plinth looking solemnly down on the traffic below. The memorial contains the names of dozens and dozens of men from Alnwick killed in the brutal campaigns between 1914 and 1918. It is a place of stillness in the midst of a busy thoroughfare.
I suppose we are used to seeing these memorials. Certainly, the commemorative events of the past few years have raised awareness again about the ghastly events of a hundred years ago.
Perhaps we have become more attentive to the lessons told by the sad, sombre figures which stand on memorials across this nation and many others. I hope so. In this year when we particularly remember the mud and terror of Passchendaele we certainly should.
My sabbatical visit to Northumberland, with its strange landscape of holy sites and ruined castles, reminded me that we shouldn’t take our commitments to peace and human flourishing for granted.
Beautiful though it is, its history reminds us that war runs deep in our DNA. Kings and would-be kings struggled over this landscape for centuries.
If my memory is accurate, atop the Alnwick memorial to the dead is a cross. It’s a good two metres above the bronze soldiers’ heads. It signals, perhaps, that faith, hope and love triumph over our violence. It indicates that the community which put up the memorial in the early 1920s had known tragedy and catastrophe, but wanted to show – in the Cross – that tragedy can be transformed into hope.
That’s what I like to believe they were doing. They channelled Northumberland’s ancient history of Christianity and its powerstruggles and showed forth their commitment to a world where the Cross stands for more than ‘the gun’.
During November, as our minds turn once again towards ‘Remembrance Sunday’ and all the mixed and complex emotions and thoughts that holds, we could do worse than meditate on the Cross. It’s a symbol that’s been used to legitimate wars that have raged for centuries and have destroyed countless lives. Medieval knights emblazoned it on their chests as they fought each other
and people in near and distant lands.
However, it also holds within it the challenge to turn away from violence. For, via the Cross we are led to the remaking of the world in Resurrection. The resurrected Christ invites us into practices of reconciliation and new life. It is from that perspective that we should attempt to live in this troublous, violent world. The violent wish to make the Cross the final judgment on the world. God invites us to another way: to live in the world from the perspective of Resurrection.