12 November: The Altar of the World and the Heavenly Altar

 bofflesmemThe flower-decked War Memorial at Boffles, Picardy, bears a Cross and martyr’s palm.

          A century  after the Great War, the altar of the world bears many well-tended monuments to the fallen. They bring to mind the Old Testament sacrifices of Jacob, who raised standing stones where he experienced God’s presence (Genesis 26:25; 28:18), or Moses’ twelve stones at the holy mountain (Exodus 24:4);  Stonehenge, and countless other standing stones.

War memorials cast the soldier as self-sacrificing victim, as alter Christus. Many consciously accepted the role, like this Kentish soldier, Frank Steed:

I was only one of thousands who were prepared to do their duty at all costs. And if I have to pay the great sacrifice, while my heart aches for you both, I do so willingly knowing that it is only for a while and the night will end.[1] 

There clearly existed in 1914 an understanding of sacrifice that men could identify with, largely derived from Scripture, where conflict and sacrifice are recurrent themes.

In Hebrews (8:1-5) Christ’s sacrifice takes place in heaven, and what happened ‘without a city wall’ is nothing like the whole story. Hebrews regards all earthly sacrifices as ‘a reflection of the heavenly reality’ (8:5) where the living Christ is the minister of the sanctuary and of the true Tent of Meeting which the Lord, not man, set up (8:1–3):

But even could I see him die,

I could but see a little part

Of that great love, which, like a fire,

Is always burning in his heart.[2]

If heaven is where we will be most truly human, and if what people call sacrifice in war is true sacrifice, it should correspond to heavenly reality as the Temple did. God should be taking the initiative, as he did in extending the Covenant to his people and in sending Christ and his Spirit into the world. If, as some claimed at the time, the War was God’s will, were the grim deaths his will? Are wartime sacrifices worthy of human beings in God’s image, or misguided offerings to false gods? Or like so much of our lives, a sin-spattered muddle?


[1]    Frank Steed, ‘Last Letter Home’ in Florence Tennent: ‘Ninety-Four Year Wait to Bury WWI Corporal’, in Your Canterbury, 4/8/2010, p7.

[2]    W. Walsham How: ‘It is a Thing Most Wonderful’,  in Betjeman, Sweet Songs of Zion,p235.

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