This post was composed before the invasion of Ukraine last month, when I was wondering how to close the month of March for this year. Even before a tank rolled across the border, before a shot was fired, the thought had occurred to me: why do we celebrate the Roman god of war for 31 days each year? Remember that Mars is the French name for the month, and other European languages share the same root.
You might argue that we don’t really celebrate Mars in his month, indeed we never give him a thought, even when eating the eponymous chocolate bar, and that would be quite true. Yet his grey presence still irritates the back of my mind.
What particularly came back to me was this hymn by the Conservative MP John Arkwright, which I first saw carved into the war memorial in Leominster, Herefordshire.
O valiant hearts, who to your glory came
1. O valiant hearts who to your glory came
Through dust of conflict and through battle flame;
Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
Your memory hallowed in the land you loved.
2. Proudly you gathered, rank on rank, to war
As who had heard God’s message from afar;
All you had hoped for, all you had, you gave,
To save mankind—yourselves you scorned to save.
3. Splendid you passed, the great surrender made;
Into the light that nevermore shall fade;
Deep your contentment in that blest abode,
Who wait the last clear trumpet call of God.
4. Long years ago, as earth lay dark and still,
Rose a loud cry upon a lonely hill,
While in the frailty of our human clay,
Christ, our Redeemer, passed the self same way.
5. Still stands His cross from that dread hour to this,
Like some bright star above the dark abyss;
Still, through the veil, the Victor’s pitying eyes
Look down to bless our lesser Calvaries.
It seems to me that Arkwright is confusing the god of War, calling men to fight and die – he does not mention the fact that they will be ordered to kill other men – with the Creator who will send out the angels for that last clear trumpet call. And to say that Christ, our Redeemer, passed the self-same way – well, the conscripted soldier, too, went where he was forced to go, even unto death. John 21:18. But Jesus refused to take up arms for his Kingdom.
There is no need to be a total pacifist to feel uneasy about conscripting God as recruiting officer for war, nor to deplore the glorifying of conflict and battle.
Let’s pray for peace, and an end to conflicts between nations and civil wars and terrorism.
Let us pray, too, for the grace to resolve our own personal conflicts and disagreements without escalating them.