Lest We Forget

By Owen Mudford - 11 November 2022

As we come closer to Remembrance Day 2022, I have been so struck by the phrase ‘lest we forget’. It forms the basis of our branding for ChristChurch as we have our Remembrance Sunday Service; it is a common phrase used around this time. But I didn’t know where it came from or why we use it.

In its most basic form, the phrase is self-explanatory – ‘don’t forget’. We shouldn’t fail to remember the lives lost, the heartbreak, the cold reality of war and the sacrifices that were made. On its own this is correct, the Bible makes it clear that each of us are made in the image of God [Genesis 1:26], each life is sacred and so therefore demands honour through care in life, and memory in death. But history is so much more than the act of remembering to produce emotions of either joy or sobriety. History has a purpose. Churchill, paraphrasing Santayana once said “those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it”. When we say ‘lest we forget’, we hold these truths in parallel.

The phrase is often seen to be taken from Rudyard Kiplings poem ‘Recessional’, a jubilee poem written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond celebrations. The poem speaks about the transient nature of the British Empire and of all earthly power, and the arrogance that comes with it in light of the permanence and splendour of God. But Kipling is himself is quoting from Deuteronomy 6.

10 “And when the Lord your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build, 11 and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, 12 then take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 13 It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. 14 You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you— 15 for the Lord your God in your midst is a jealous God—lest the anger of the Lord your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth.

The Deuteronomic passage sits straight after the giving of the Shema, the greatest commandment given to the people.

4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

The people are commanded to teach their children, to remind each other when they gather, to write it on their doorposts and gates and to write it on their hands and foreheads. Yahweh reminds them that He led their fathers, the patriarchs, through the deserts and it was He that freed them from slavery in Egypt. Their lives from this point on should be lived in the knowledge of His love, compassion, mercy, and grace.

As we approach Remembrance Sunday, that is the spirit with which we say, ‘Lest we forget’. That our lives should be lived in remembrance of the sacrifice that was given by men and women in conflict, as they laid down their lives for freedom. We should never take this for granted. As we look out at the current conflict in Ukraine, our hearts should mourn that humanity falls short of God’s perfect standard and pray for those who defend their homes and their families. We pray for peace and that we would all live in peace with one another, as Paul commands the Thessalonians [1 Timothy 2:1-2].

And, of course, at Remembrance we must never forget the greatest sacrifice of all – that of Jesus Christ laying down His life on the cross for our sin. Just as God commands the Israelites to never forget the Exodus, we must never forget Calvary. As Christians, our lives are forever changed, and we try to live our lives in accordance to God’s law in thanks for the mercy and grace that was shown to us through Jesus; lest we forget His suffering on our behalf so that we may have peace before God.