Poppies and St. Paul’s

Blood spills from the Tower of London, a pool of scarlet poppies slowly spreading from its walls. Each flower represents a life, a death, a memory of loss. The art installation in honor of the centenary of WWI is a reminder not only of the tragedy of war, but also of the communion of humanity through our shared ability to suffer.

As I stand above the poppies, I think of what I read yesterday in a fading manuscript, written by a hand long turned to dust, written below a name now indecipherable: “All flesh is grass, and as the flower doth quickly fade.” My friend is unnerved by the chink of hammer on metal and ceramic as the poppies are pounded into the earth, like coffin nails. But it’s that reminder of death that makes the poppies an affirmation of shared human life, of humans who together can mourn and fade.

Paul Cummins, one of the artists of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red says of the brevity of the installation, “I never intended the poppies to be anything but transient. Like the real flower, they were planted for a season and then are gone—like the frailty of the soldiers’ lives.” 888,246 poppies were planted, the last one today, Remembrance Day.

And the poppies are a reminder, too, of the pain that the dark walls of the Tower have seen and stood for, imprisonments and beheadings and wars and exploitations. The history of humanity is one of we flawed humans turning on each other and ourselves, bleeding out as we claw our hearts from our own chests.

As I stand in St. Paul’s, during the two minutes of silence in the Service for Remembrance, the cathedral is as still as a clear lake, or a crypt.

The canon has just spoken about the frontal on display, a frontal that was made by WWI soldiers recovering from shell shock. The flowers and the birds are barely faded, still vibrant and lively on the cloth. But the flowers are a memory of death, and they are the work of slow and partial healing and scarred minds. The central chalice, the canon says, was embroidered by an eighteen-year-old rifleman. He joined when he was fourteen.

The chalice, she says, is a reminder of all those drawn into war and violence, the child soldiers then and now. It’s also a symbol of unity in memory, not only memory of war, but of the cross—the cross where Christ joined with our human pain and fleeting breath and showed that his flesh too was grass.

I am reminded of Renaissance chalices decorated with pelicans (graceful, phoenix-like birds created by silversmiths who had never seen a real pelican). The pelican was used as a symbol of Christ, because she was thought to pierce her own breast to feed her children with her blood. A fitting symbol (if a gruesome one) to emblazon a communion chalice filled with the blood of Christ.

As I stand outside St. Paul’s, the people spill out from its walls, scarlet poppies pinned to each lapel. The pool of people slowly spreads from walls that have stood for a flawed institution, for dark oppressions, martyrdoms, and schisms. But we the church, the human church, are joined together in earthly transience, and we are joined there by a God who became flesh.

And the memories of the pain we’ve caused, and suffered, and the pain we’ve mourned for others, joins us too—that’s part of our communion. And it’s a communion that asks us to pour our heart’s-blood out for others. (This, says the canon, is the work of God that is love.) That’s why Christ’s blood and body are fitting symbols (if gruesome ones) for the enduring love of God.

So the poppies are, for me, not just a sign of the losses of war. They are a reminder of human communion through the frailty of life and the work of love that does not fade.

[photo credit: amandabhslater via photopin cc (cropped and resized)]

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