"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Remembering Ortona – An Advent Sermon

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A sermon I gave several years back at a service attended by the Loyal Edmonton Regiment at our Cathedral (their parish church). I was honoured to be asked if I would consider serving as their chaplain…but unfortunately, my continuing back problems made that impossible. I was sorry, for they are a fine regiment, but it seems that my days of military service were truly at an end.

Ortona, A West Canadian Town.

We gather today as a community to worship and to welcome to our midst the men and women of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment. This is the unit that the historian of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment said, reporting on the arrival of reinforcements in Italy in December 1944, “that most welcome sight – the marching infantry of the Loyal Edmontons – the only outfit in the Army that we ever considered might be as good, or better than ourselves.” As we work through this last Sunday in the season of Advent, our last time together to prepare ourselves as a community for Christmas, to recall the birth of Christ, we gather for another reason….to commemorate with these men and women of the Queen’s Canadian Forces a short-lived battle that took place just before Christmas 1943. This battle, the Battle for Ortona, was an event that took place over a short period, about 21 days all told of which seven were in the town proper, but it was to be a battle that rivalled almost all others of the Second World War in terms of intensity and ferocity. Ortona became known as a “miniature Stalingrad” as it seemed to be a similar engagement to the battle for Stalingrad.

Matthew Halton, a war correspondent for the CBC, reported this impression of Ortona, “For seven days and seven nights the Canadians have been trying to clear the town and the action is as fierce as perhaps modern man has ever fought…Canadian and German seem to be both beyond exhaustion and beyond fear. The battle has the quality of a nightmare. It has a special quality of its own, like…the fight at Stalingrad…the same apocalyptic pall of smoke and fire and maniacal determination…For seven days and seven nights the Canadians have been attacking in Ortona, yard by yard, building by building, window by window…It wasn’t hell. It was the courtyard of hell. It was a maelstrom of noise and hot, splitting steel…the rattling of machine guns never stops … wounded men refuse to leave, and the men don’t want to be relieved after seven days and seven nights… the battlefield is still an appalling thing to see, in its mud, ruin, dead, and its blight and desolation.”

So we again find ourselves in a place of some tension. On this Sunday our readings recall the role of Mary in bringing Christ to earth…a role that has resulted in her receiving the title “theotokos” or “God-bearer”. At the same time we’re bringing back into the forefront of our memories a horrible battle that cost the lives of many Canadian soldiers. This day brings a very real challenge to each of us as we sit here in our comfortable lives, in our reasonably comfortable pews: Mary embarked on a completely unknown path with only faith in God as her guide; 93,000 Canadians entered a similar path to the unknown as they fought in the Italian campaign, standing for their friends in defence of things that they felt strongly enough about that they were willing to die for. So today we are each faced with a challenging question: what is there in our lives, in our beliefs, that we follow so strongly that we would willing to give up everything in order to follow it, to hold it, to maintain it?
And the angel said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son. . . For with God nothing will be impossible.” As the millennium turns, this Christmastide will be another blessed opportunity for bearing witness unashamedly to the church’s ancient faith that very God of very God really happened here, on this planet, to people that really weren’t that different from you and I. The formal name for this coming of God to earth is called ‘The Incarnation’. It was a universe-altering event. “The Incarnation is like a dagger thrust into the weft of human history” (Edwyn Hoskyns). We can not let this truth lie hidden as a simply literary device: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
God broke through into our world through the obedience and willingness of a peasant girl from Nazareth. God’s entry into this world, to depart from that heavenly realm which is completely un-worldly, to become one of us brought holiness to the entire creation. This singular act, the birth of Emmanuel, which means God with us, brought the transcendent holy into physical being, and nothing else would ever be the same. // //

First World War British soldier and poet, Rupert Brooke, wrote these words spoken by a dead British soldier,

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home. (Repeat first line to period)

Brooke passes on a timeless truth about those who die in war. Those who make the supreme sacrifice in a distant land consecrate the ground where they lie so that it is forever a piece of their homeland, and you can hear in Brooke’s words easily the western Canadian equivalent with wheat fields and the lakes and rivers of the north. So Ortona, that place of great conflict, is forever linked to Canada by the blood of our war dead that was spilled there. This is the reason why, after Ortona was won, the Loyal Edmonton’s and the Seaforth Highlander’s placed a sign at the entrance to Ortona: This is Ortona, A West Canadian Town.

You can see those soldiers, some of whom had not slept properly in weeks, blood, sweat and mud staining their dishevelled uniforms, exhaustion like a cloud hanging over them, their joy at accomplishing a hard-won mission tempered by the too-present knowledge of all those friends who had died. And their action was to recognize this blood-purchase of Ortona with that small wooden sign, a sign that had huge worth and importance as it proclaimed the place bought with Canadian blood and sweat: “This is Ortona. A West Canadian Town”.

There is a link here between these young soldiers and the mother of our Lord, Mary. As the ground upon which they died is forever consecrated to Canada, so God, by entering our world through Mary, forever consecrated all of the creation to Him. In fact this image of Rupert Brooke’s poetry, and the meaning behind that sign, that the blood of those slain in pursuit of freedom purchases the land, will also be relevant to we Christians. It was, and it is, through the blood of Jesus that we are all purchased and redeemed from all of our struggles and despair and all of our failures and shattered dreams. I would not be out of line in posting a sign at the entrance to Edmonton…perhaps just above the ‘City of Champions’ logo that says… “This is Edmonton. A City bought with the Blood of Christ”

This is perhaps one of the hardest truths for us to hold on to, that there is simply no place within the creation where one can escape God. Even when we see something that causes us to exclaim, “This place is truly forsaken by God”…be it Ortona some 62 years ago, more recently the Medac Pocket, Bosnia or Rwanda, or a home where a young child has been abused, we must always remember that there is no place, and no person that has been forsaken by God. There is no place and certainly no person that has been forsaken by God.

There is a saying that the birth of a baby is proof that God still has plans for the world. A story from the last part of the battle for Ortona offers an interesting perspective of God’s place even there. Captain Vic Soley told the correspondent Matthew Halton a story of the last evening of the battle. Amid a heavy artillery bombardment, a young Italian woman was discovered buried alive in the ruins of one of the buildings. The Loyal Edmontons and the Seaforth worked together to rescue her. As they pulled her from the ruin they discovered she was not only pregnant, but in the midst of labour. A sergeant from Vancouver assisted with the delivery and mother and child were both well. The woman promised the men that her son’s middle name would be Canadian.

From war correspondent Christopher Buckley describing the strange life in forward battle positions in Ortona, “What a strange clutter of humanity it was. There were some five or six Canadian soldiers, there were old women and there were children innumerable….In the half-darkened room the pasta for the mid-day meal was simmering over the fire in the corner. Haggard, prematurely aged women kept emerging shyly, one after the other from some inner chamber where an old man, the grandfather of the children, was dying…Another old man was uttering maledictions against Mussolini. Then his wife surprisingly produced a [bottle] of Marsala and a half-dozen glasses. She moved around the soldiers filling and re-filling their glasses. The children clambered over the Canadian soldiers and clutched them convulsively ever time one of our anti-tank guns, located only a half-dozen paces from the door of the house, fired down the street in the direction of one of the German machine-gun nests. Soon each of us had a squirming, terrified child in our arms. The old lady went on serving Marsala.”

As a resident of Ortona searched for his family possessions in the ruins of their house, a young Canadian approached and asked in perfect Italian if the man might know a family that had lived in Ortona. They were neighbours who lived just down the street. He led the soldier to a badly battered structure and banged on the door. After a few minutes the door opened and an old man looked out warily. “Grandpa” the young man said, and embraced his grandfather, whom he had never met.

So three short stories from a place of battle and death all of which have that spark of Christ’s presence about them…a baby saved by soldiers and born on the battlefield, children comforted by soldiers in the midst of battle, and a family reunion that might never have happened. These all serve to underline that truth: there is no place, and no one that is excluded from God. Like Mary, who trusted in God in the face of the unknown, let us all too trust in God as we seek to follow His will for each of us. Let us rest secure in the knowledge that where ever we may be and whatever we may have done, or may do, God is with us even in the great uncertainty of this world.

Don’t be afraid to be in that place of uncertainty, for it is where Christ is. Sometimes this will be the last place you want to be – a place of death and despair, of fearful sounds, smells and images. But even there, you will know, that this is the only place you have ever desired to be for in it you will have found Christ.

As we prepare each of ourselves for the coming of Christ, Emmanuel, God with us, in one short week, let us rest secure in the knowledge that God has already redeemed this world, and redeemed each of us fully. All we need to is open our hearts and minds and invite him into our lives. As we recall those selfless individuals who fought through Ortona for freedom, let us be equally selfless as we seek to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ. Amen.


Written by sameo416

December 17, 2011 at 2:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. […] preached a sermon, “Remembering Ortona – a West Canadian town” that day that attempted to mix the history with the call of the Christian.  It was in many ways […]

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