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Rev Nick Blair, 14 November 2021:

"Symbols matter! Symbolic colours matter: Ireland, who normally play in Green, played in purple last weekend. I didn’t know what to think! Club crests, flags, anthems, school songs, they matter. We invest a lot of emotional energy and significance into them. But symbols matter. Symbols that unite, those that draw together as many as possible, are the ideal, although I admit that not everybody agrees. I believe that the poppy adopted in this country 100 years ago, as the symbol of Remembrance, is a symbol that can and should unite and also teach us.

Laidlaw students who played in the School Pipe and drums Band

The poem “In Flanders fields”, written by Canadian Surgeon John McCrae, perhaps was the inspiration for this symbol. It is thought he wrote it on 3 May 1915 after attending the funeral of one of his closest friends, Alexis Helmer - it was May and the countryside was blooming. By coincidence, I have in my hand a letter written by my Great Uncle, Robert Blair, 10 days later on 13 May, an Irish Canadian posted in exactly the same sector. He writes, having been just pulled back from the front line:

“The country here is looking nice and green. The potatoes are well through and the trees are almost in full leaf and the flowers in bloom.” 

John McCrae wrote:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Such little things really matter in times of hardship. Soldiers and civilians have seen in nature images that speak to them - the poppy was one of these: it blossomed during the “prime fighting season”, from May to September; It was red, like the blood the soldiers shed; it was fragile, far more fragile than the paper ones you wear; it spoke of the fragility of life. And it grew in the worst of circumstances – everywhere: on the battlefield; on the graves; a fragile flower of beauty seemingly surviving in the midst of utter destruction. The poppy was for them a symbol of sacrifice, fragility and survival - what better symbol for us, of conflict and remembrance and hope.

Four members of the Merchiston pipe band stand in the School driveway

I reiterate the message that life is precious, life is beautiful, life is fragile, but life is incredibly resilient when we come together and support each other. This is what they did 100 years ago when they adopted the poppy. Wearing it said: ”I am with you”, ”I understand”, ”We are together in our grief and remembrance”  - so powerful! 

McCrae’s second verse simply says to us: ”We are you! We were you!”   Are you warmed by the sunshine? Do you marvel at sunsets? Have you ever loved and been loved? We are you!  We were you! 

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

In Flanders fields.

Remembrance is about recognising a common humanity. I remember, as a child, visiting the war memorial in Coleraine and being told that one of the brass names was my Uncle Bruce - just a name in brass; I never met him. Yet through family stories, I did.

I hope you get the idea that every soldier, every civilian killed in war is....was a fellow human being. They lived, felt the warmth of the sun, saw sunset, loved and were loved. Today we don’t celebrate war. Let me say that again - we do not celebrate war!  But we do recognise sacrifice. We do remember individual stories. Just as each individual here wears a poppy, each of these men and women were individuals just like us. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand the magnitude of the sacrifice that was made.

McCrae’s final verse:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!? Some have wondered about this, especially in the light of Jesus’s words, read so well by Mackenzie: “This is my command, love one another”. Quarrelling? Love? Incompatible, surely! But It depends on the foe, doesn’t it? There are some foes, some enemies that are surely worth quarrelling with - because of Love: Injustice, inequality, racism, self-interest.

What was interesting when I went through this with the Third Form yesterday, they got it. All these are quarrels that are based in a deep Love, a deep love of Justice and for the one who has been ill-treated, a deep love for one’s fellow human being and a quarrel with the thought that anyone - anyone should be ill-treated because of circumstances of birth, skin colour, religious belief. Surely we need to grow and nurture and encourage young men and women who have a great love!

A great love for their fellow human being;

A great love for justice and equality;

A great love for freedom;

A great love for truth. 

It was a great love which for many of these young men was exemplified by Christ’s sacrifice for them on the cross: “Greater love has no-one than this than someone lays down their life for their friends”. And here is the key for me, why I think that Remembrance will always continue to be relevant: the continuing importance of sacrifice for the greater good. We do not celebrate war but we honour sacrifice.

The most important thing in our lives may have to be protected by sacrifice. After all, we sacrifice time to exercise - we know it is good for us. We sacrifice a night out because we have a game the next day – short-term pain for long-term gain! As parents, we sacrifice to try and give our children the best chance in life. However, the most important things in humanity’s life may require our sacrifice to protect. Please God, not the ultimate sacrifice that so many made in the past, but personal sacrifices nevertheless. What will it require from us to rescue and protect -

Our fellow human beings, our brothers and sisters? 

Our freedoms and liberty?

Our planet? 

It is one thing to sacrifice for your own benefit. But to give up something for the common good, for the good of others – well, that is deserving of recognition, it is deserving of remembrance. It is, in the words of Jesus, “Laying down your life for your friends.“ It poses a question for us. What am I prepared to give up (sacrifice) for the common good? 

Your forebears planned this Memorial Hall 100 years ago so we could remember and consider such things. I am so grateful to them. They cut to the very heart of who we are as a School and as human beings! “What do you believe in?”, they asked. “What are your core values?” By building this Hall, they said to future generations, “Don’t dare forget such things as sacrifice, and friendship, and freedom”. They gave us a Hall where we can contemplate what is truly important.

As John McCrae said: “The torch (of sacrifice) has been thrown”. Hold it high, Merchiston. Hold it high!"

Rev Nick Blair, Chaplain