The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion      11th November 2018
They Shall Grow Not Old
Jeremy Fletcher

Tonight the BBC will broadcast a film by Peter Jackson, the Director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Stunning technology has allowed him to bring archive footage from the Great War to brilliant life. Those who fought become as real as the people sitting next to us. They could be in the armed forces of today. It should not be easy viewing. We will not have the excuse of grainy black and white pictures to distance ourselves from the carnage. One hundred years will be as if they had never been, and this will be us. 


The film is called They Shall Not Grow Old. We have already heard those words. They come from a poem by Lawrence Binyon called For the Fallen. Published in 1914, the poem (written overlooking a Cornish beach) thinks of the dead across the sea. As Remembrance commemorations took hold after the war, Binyon’s stanza became their centrepiece. Of course, we have no personal memory of all this. But we are re-minded as we think of the events and the people of that and other conflicts, and in that sense we remember. Here are three of the seven verses. 


They went with songs to the battle, they were young,

Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.

They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;

They fell with their faces to the foe.


They shall grow not 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.


They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;

They sit no more at familiar tables of home;

They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;

They sleep beyond England’s foam.


I have presided at many acts of remembrance where Binyon’s words have been central, and once I got the order wrong. The feedback from veterans of the Second World War was rapid and clear, and I’ve never done it again. They forgave me, and made me an Honorary Normandy Veteran, a deeply humbling privilege. Have you noticed that Peter Jackson has deliberately changed the order? He says ‘they shall not grow old’. Binyon wrote ‘they shall grow not old’. The English teacher in me has been reflecting on that. Is there a difference between ‘not grow’ and ‘grow not’? I think there is. 


To say that the fallen do not grow old is logical and factual. They are fixed forever at the cruelly youthful point of their death. They will not live to full age, continue their relationships, see their children grow, not their children and the generations to follow. They are as unmoving as their names on their memorials. In my previous two churches such names have been a profound feature: York Minster holds the names of 19,000 Second World War aircrew, and of hundreds of women who died in the Great War. Beverley Minster contains 16 sets of regimental colours and holds 8,00 names of those from East Yorkshire who died in the Great War.. So many lives stopped, cruelly never to age as we do. 


But I hear more than that when I say ‘they shall grow not old’. Remembrance is a living and developing observance. What we call to mind changes as the world changes, new facts emerge, new perspectives are offered, new interpretations and representations, like Peter Jackson’s film, are presented. We reassess. We reaffirm the instant response to work with all we have to prevent such carnage, and apply it afresh to new situations. 


What does commemorating the ending of dreadful conflict in Europe say to a Europe considering how nation states might relate and commit themselves to each other? What does the presence of combatants from different countries, of different colours and faiths say to a nation struggling with matters of inclusion and integration? What does the forced movement of peoples  in war say to those today who are refugees from violence, poverty and climate change? 


In that sense the Fallen grow in our remembering, even as they remain at the age of their falling. Not old, their sacrifice grows and deepens and affects and challenges. They died for this world, as well as the world of a century ago. The church uses the word ‘remember’ in a similar way, Sunday by Sunday. The early unjust death of a young man not one hundred but two thousand years ago is ‘re-membered’ not as a fact of ancient history, but one which grows as it is brought to mind, and takes flesh in us. The power and presence of Jesus Christ, who died and was raised means that we grow, we look forward, we work towards a vision of the Kingdom of heaven where war will be no more, where our differences are enfolded and defused through the death of one man, the Son of God, for the whole world.


And as we remember the eternal sacrifice of Christ, the rest of Binyon’s words remind us that The Fallen do not remain in the past. Their memory grows.  


But where our desires are and our hopes profound,

Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,

To the innermost heart of their own land they are known

As the stars are known to the Night;


As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,

Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;

As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,

To the end, to the end, they remain.


Today, a century from the end of the war to end all wars, in the light of Christ we commend all who have died in conflict, knowing that as they are young in life, they are known in eternity. And we commit ourselves to work for a world where righteousness triumphs and all live in peace. The Fallen deserve no less. They grow not old. We will remember them.

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