Today throughout much of the world, celebrations and commemorations of Armistice Day, or what here in the US we call Veterans Day and elsewhere is known as Remembrance Day, are in full swing and rightly so. It was at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 that the final Armistice between the parties of the first World War was signed, bringing to an end “the War to End All Wars.” Or so it was hoped. Because what followed this “stoppage of arms” was not a just peace, but one marred by vengeance and retribution, that terrible war was only a prelude to another and even more terrible war barely twenty years later. And in truth, several lesser wars since then, particularly in the Middle East, where territorial wars continue to this day.
The lesson the great nations of the world did not learn from “the Great War” is that the only path to lasting peace is justice. An unjust peace is only a hiatus during which the impetus toward further wars festers and grows more virulent.
Today’s first reading recalls an incident in the aftermath of a war between the Greek successors of Alexander the Great and the Jewish
resistance,when customs alien to Jewish life and faith were imposed by violence and terror upon a conquered people. The insurgence led to years of bloody conflict that ended two centuries later with the Roman occupation, more rebellions, and the eventual destruction of the Jewish nation. During that interval, known with some irony as the Pax Augustana – the “Peace of Augustus”– there came among us the Prince of Peace, the Savior whose mission was not to overthrow an unjust ruler but to emancipate the human race from all injustice, hatred, and killing. He paid for it with his life.
The theme that runs through today’s liturgy, however, is not about war and death but rather about resurrection and life. The episode from the Second Book of the Maccabees, a work not in the Hebrew canon of Scripture but treasured by both Jews and Christians, testifies to a firm belief in the ultimate vindication of undying faith — “…since it is for his laws that we die, the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever.”
Similarly, the thrust of the gospel reading is not some technical interpretation of the Levirate Law as the scholarly but narrow-minded Sadducees attempt to lure Jesus into a legal dilemma. Rather, he cuts to the quick – their refusal to believe in the resurrection of the dead. But, Jesus insists, “the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive” [Luke 20:37-38].
As I once said on such a day, there are no dead people in the sight of God – all are alive, eternally. Every moment is now, and there is no elsewhere. Where the presence of God is felt, there, too, are all those who have preceded us into the light of glory, whose presence to God does not differ from our own. The only difference lies on our side, limited as we are by boundaries of space and time that also prevent us from being fully attentive to that glorifying presence.
Tomorrow’s observance reminds us that those who resist injustice and oppression, even to the shedding of their blood, are precious in the sight of God — all the former or “old” soldiers (which is what “veteran” means), but those presently serving, and, as our allies in Europe recall, all those who perished in the Great War, civilians and soldiers alike. In this month of remembrance, we should pause to remember all those who have suffered and died in the long history of humanity’s wars – the most destructive, wasteful, vicious enterprises ever undertaken on this planet. Let us pause, too, and ask forgiveness as we pray for those who died so needlessly and for ourselves, too, that we may at last learn that the path to peace lies and will always lie through true and universal justice.