November is a month of poppies in Britain – the splash of scarlet against the grey granite on War Memorials across the country. The Catholic Church is, of course, formally represented at every local Remembrance Sunday service, and at the national one held in London at the Cenotaph, attended by HM the Queen.
The Cenotaph is, in its stark simplicity, a national monument instantly recognisable in any photograph or TV clip. Standing in the centre of Whitehall, the traffic passes either side of it in this central street with the Houses of Parliament at one end and Trafalgar Square at the other. On Remembrance Sunday, all traffic is blocked from this area, and as the chimes of Big Ben herald the Two Minutes Silence, only birdsong and the rustle of plane trees break the stillness.
For Catholics, Remembrance Sunday fits with dramatic naturalness into the month of November, dedicated for centuries to prayer for the dead. The wreaths and solemn music, the hymns and the prayers, all chime with what the whole of the month of November represents in the Catholic calendar. At the other end of Victoria Street, in Westminster Cathedral, Remembrance Sunday is marked with a solemn Mass, attended by members of the Armed Services in uniform, and poppy wreaths are laid at the war memorials in the Cathedral, notably in the Chapel of St George where names of the war dead line the walls.
In the Cathedral’s Chapel of All Souls, people will, throughout November, come in to pray and to write the names of the dead on sheets of paper, which will be brought to the altar so that all the dead are commemorated in Masses throughout the month.
November, of course, also sees preparations for Advent and Christmas. The Christmas lights now sparkle in London’s shops, and the great commercial rush will soon be well under way. In church, the faithful will be reminded that Advent is a penitential season – there will be mention of the importance of going to confession, and families will be encouraged to pray together, to think about the real reason for Christmas, to light candles week by week on an Advent wreath, and to step back from the consumerist approach which threatens to sweep all before it in the Britain of 2011.
The numbers for Mass attendance seem to have been raised following the Papal Visit in September, and parishes across the country have good opportunities for evangelisation as Christmas draws near. As November reminds us, we are living in difficult and uncertain times – the death toll of British soldiers in Afghanistan has now passed the 300 mark, and there is unrest in Britain as economic and social difficulties present themselves with force. In dark and chilly days, Christmas sends a message of light and hope.