‘Not one stone shall be left upon another – all will be thrown down.’
Today is a somber day on the German calendar. It’s ‘Volkstrauertag’, the day of national mourning in Germany, a day that can be compared to the U.S. American Memorial Day.
This day of remembrance was instituted after the horrors of World War I – ‘the war to end all wars’, which ended almost exactly 100 years ago, on November 11th, 1918. An estimated 9 Million combatants and 7 million civilians were killed as a result of the fighting. However, the war contributed to other horrors as well: state mandated genocides, like the one in Armenia, and the great influenza outbreak of 1918; these events cost an estimated 50-100 million lives.
During the days of World War I, not one stone was left upon another in combat zones. There were millions of people whose lives were shattered by the loss of a family member, the loss of health, the loss of sanity, the loss of home, the loss of a livelihood. World War I at the time seemed to have apocalyptic dimensions with portents and calamities we repeatedly read about in the Bible, like in today’s lesson from the Book of Daniel and the gospel according to Mark. The pain, the destruction, the loss and the death people experienced were so deep, so profound, so traumatic, that people across the world hoped that this would be the last war ever – that such horrors would not be repeated. That, after this experience, finally peace between the nations and peoples would reign.
It took Germany, which had some of the worst combat losses in WW I, a little over 20 years to start another, even more destructive war. History has the tendency to repeat itself…
In our Bible, we find the so called ‘apocalyptic literature’ in certain intervals. There are passages or entire books dedicated to the end times – times that bring turmoil, destruction and unimaginable suffering, but ultimately lead to the arrival of God’s reign on earth, the reconciliation of all peoples and nations, the redemption of the faithful, and everlasting peace.
Usually these writing of such passages and books coincides with cataclysmic events in the history of the people of Israel – and there were many of those, since the land the people of Israel inhabited has always been of strategic importance. Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, the Greek and the Romans are just some of the powers that invaded this tiny stretch of land between Europe, Asia and Africa throughout history – and inflicted unimaginable suffering on the conquered people. And as we all know, that region is still one of the most contested areas in the world today.
More than once, not one stone was left upon the other in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. And each and every time that happened, people thought: this is it. This is the end of days. The Messiah will come. God will intervene. God will establish a kingdom of peace. For how much more suffering can we take? How much worse can it get than what we are going through right now?
The one book in the New Testament that is apocalyptic in its nature is the Book of Revelation, the last book of our Bible. I talked about it last Sunday, so please excuse me if I repeat myself: here we have vision of the end times, with much turmoil and calamities, culminating in the creation of a new heaven and a new earth where God dwells among the people and eternal peace reigns.
It may surprise you that today’s passage from the gospel of Mark is called the ‘little apocalypse’ among scholars. Here Jesus talks about the end of times – not quite as sweepingly and imaginatively as John in the Book of Revelation – but here Jesus paints a picture of a time of redemption after all trials and tribulations in this world. No wonder the early Christian community embraced these words – they, together with the Jews, were hit hard by the destruction of Jerusalem and the mighty temple, the center of their spiritual life, in the year 70 through the Romans.
In apocalyptic literature, there is always a vision of a new beginning, of hope. The destruction, violence and death people experience here on earth is not the end. Apocalyptic literature is in essence like a pep talk: hang in there! Better times will come. God has the last word. Life has the last word.
November 11th doesn’t only mark the end of one of the most destructive wars on earth. November 11th traditionally has also been celebrated in the church as St. Martin’s Day.
One beloved tradition, which is still observed today by people in German speaking regions and by German expats here today, is for children to carry colorful lanterns out into the darkness and to sing songs about St. Martin and about the light in the darkness. As a child, I loved being part of these parades on or around St. Martin’s Day. And my eyes still water today when I see a group of children march by, carrying their light, beacons of hope in a dark world.
Who was St. Martin – to be more specific, St. Martin of Tours? I the 4th century, Martin served as a soldier in the Roman army in Gaul, which is modern day France. His name ‘Martin’ even is a nod to this profession: Martin is related to Mars, the god of war.
According to a famous legend, one day Martin encountered a scantily clad beggar on a freezing day. Moved with pity, he took his own cloak and cut it in two, giving half to the beggar. That night, Christ appeared to him in a dream; he was wearing the half cloak Martin had given to the beggar and saying to the angels, ‘This is Martin, the soldier, who clothed me.’
This was Martin’s conversion experience. Instead of serving Mars, the god of war, he started serving Christ, the god of life and peace; eventually he became the bishop of Tours and, to this day, is the patron saint of France.
(And just as an interesting aside, the Latin word for cloak is ‘cappa’; Martin’s half cloak was referred to as ‘capella’, little cloak. The room where the relic of Martin’s little cloak, the capella, was kept eventually was called ‘capella’ as well; this became the word for a small subdivision in a church in general, and this is where our word ‘chapel’ comes from. The keeper of the capella was called ‘cappellanu’ – that’s where our word ‘chaplain’ comes from. Now you know.)
St. Martin is a great example of a life totally turned around, from warrior to peacekeeper, a life made new by the grace and love of God.
And it is not a coincidence that World War I formally ended on November 11th, St. Martin’s Day – on the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour, to be exact. This day was chosen deliberately by the warring nations to look to the example of St. Martin, to invoke a new start, a turnaround after more than 4 years of unspeakable suffering and destruction, a time when not one stone was left upon another.
To end the war on the feast day of St. Martin expressed the hope that, after the apocalyptic experience of World War I, the day of peace had come.
As we all know, the peace treaty on St. Martin’s Day did not bring an end to all wars. Today, we still witness unspeakable suffering in this country and around the world. There is bigotry, ignorance and hatred. People hurt and kill other human beings in the name of religion, of country, and of ideology. We see the kind of calamities Jesus talks about in today’s gospel.
But this is not the end. Eventually, justice and love and peace will reign. People will be reconciled with God and with one another.
There is hope. Light shines in the darkness – on the day of St. Martin, when children carry the light and the hope into the world. And on all days when we let our light so shine.
Picture by Veeterzy on unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German