My Arabic teacher asked me yesterday if I had been to the pool. “Ah,” I said, “you see my sunburn! No, I wasn’t at the pool. I was at the cemetery.”
Tonight at our rehearsal, our choir mates will likely be able to tell who sang at the Remembrance service on Sunday because we all have sun burned, red necks. That’s what happens when you sit outside, with your back to the sun, on a beautiful November day in Cairo.
Red necks aside, the view that we had, sitting to the side facing the gathered congregation was quite lovely. We could see the faces of the representatives of close to two dozen countries who gathered to remember those who died in the war that started 100 years ago. I watched as representatives from countries spanning the globe–among them: Japan, Australia, Canada, India, France, Pakistan, the US, Tanzania, South Africa–laid wreaths on the memorial. At one point, I saw a tall, suit-clad man wipe a tear from his eye. My voice caught in my throat when our director paused from his directing to place his hand on his heart, as he so often does as a sign of sincere respect, as the US representatives placed a wreath on the memorial.
We listened as the British ambassador read the Beatitudes and the British Defence Attache read the Act of Remembrance,
“They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old: age shall not weary them nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning. We will remember them.”
And then we all spoke together, “We will remember them.”
But it wasn’t just about remembering, and certainly not about glorifying, the Great War. The Anglican priest who led the service spoke beautifully and eloquently about working for peace. He acknowledged the countries represented don’t always agree and don’t always get along. And yet, there is a yearning and desire for peace. He spoke about the poppy as a sign of resurrection, growing out of the ruined land of Flanders.
During the silence, the military personnel saluting, I listened. Though the people gathered stood quietly, life went on around us. I could hear children laughing from somewhere near by. And there was something about that that served as a reminder of the tenacity of life. Though we stood in the middle of a cemetery filled with the graves of members of the Commonwealth military, from around the world, who had been killed in numerous conflicts and wars, we heard the laughter of children playing.
Life persists in spite of the cruelty and hatred, in spite of the violence and war. And when life persists, there is a little part of us that stands up to say that war and violence will not ultimately win the day. When life persists, there is a witness to the hope that the world will be better for the children who are born today. As children’s laughter drifted over an international and interfaith assembly observing a moment of silence, I gave thanks for the tenacious spirit of life that has persisted in spite of humanity’s best efforts to drown it out.
In Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut writes:
I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.
Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.
So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.
What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.
And all music is.
There was something sacred, holy, set-apart, about that gathering on Sunday. The fact that people from a number of countries, not always friends, came together. There was no denying that they were there, representing their respective countries, yes, but also representing something bigger–the desire and yearning and hope for peace.
And though I was there as part of a group to provide music, beautiful music if I must say, the most sacred music of the day was that laughter, drifting over us and calling us to remember and celebrate and protect the sacredness of life. Unbeknownst to them, but recognized by more than one who stood in silence, the laughter of those unseen Egyptian children was a witness to the tenacity of life, in the midst of a field dedicated to the reality of death.