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Fit for heroes?

By David Cusworth - posted Friday, 9 November 2012


On Sunday, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, I'll buff up my old brass bugle and play the soldiers' lament at the cenotaph; five-score mournful notes left hanging on the breeze with the names, lives, loves and losses of the fallen.

It echoes across the world, from suburban TV sets to the battlefields of Afghanistan to a place just beyond the Hindenburg Line where Australian Diggers carved their name in the annals of valour. The loneliest of the AIF memorials in France and Belgium is dedicated to the Fourth Division, cut off by a motorway running through the old German lines, and it is the most desolate: men died here when the war was already won.

The Remembrance Day ceremony is a commemoration of the end of the "war to end all wars", 1914-18; and the sad mockery of that phrase in the years since extends the sentiment to the fallen of all wars.

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Last Post, originally a signal that the last sentry had taken his post for the night, has become an act of devotion to address what we now struggle to acknowledge: the giving of self to something greater than self.

Once upon a time it was common place; and while people were challenged to describe that self-giving, there were traditions at hand to help. The "supreme sacrifice", a "lesser Calvary": the phrases harnessed to the cause back then had a resonance that is lost with the gradual retreat of faith from public life.

So we retreat to a song without words, a song that resonates in unforeseen places.

In churches around the world, we read this Sunday of a widow who gives her last two brass razoos to a Temple whose officials, we are are told, "devour the homes of widows and orphans and for the sake of appearances say long prayers."

The widow has no name and speaks no words. Nor do we know why she gives away "the whole of her life" – a sum worth a handful of flour, which might have kept her from starvation.

Widows and orphans are important in the Bible. The second book of Jewish law, Deuteronomy, says that God "executes justice for the orphan and the widow".

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To emphasise the point, we also read from the Old Testament book of Ruth, a young widow who chooses loyalty to her widowed mother-in-law over returning to her own people across the border. As a widow, Ruth is allowed to glean grain from the edge of a harvest field to earn her handful of flour. When she's done, her mother-in-law Naomi urges her to seduce the landowner Boaz while he sleeps on the "threshing floor" – this is the Old Testament, remember – and he then marries Ruth. The couple raise a child who becomes an ancestor to King David, and ultimately Jesus.

Lesson? Widows matter, as generations of war veterans have acknowledged. Perhaps the most humanising aspect of our cult of Remembrance is the attention paid from its earliest days to widows and orphans. A society can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members, and a widow or orphan without means is on the edge of existence.

Many women lose husbands and sons in war. At the point where Jesus observes the widow in the Temple, his mother is most likely a widow who is about to lose her son. So the poignant moment is two-edged. The widow who has nothing left to lose gives her all.

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About the Author

David Cusworth is a Western Australian writer.

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All articles by David Cusworth

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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