Saint John Paul II was fascinated with dates in history, and he found major anniversaries to be marvelous opportunities to reflect on the workings of the eternal God, who entered history. Most of you will remember the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus, which we celebrated as the opening of the Third Christian Millennium. But do you remember the 1988 celebration of a millennium of Ukrainian Christianity, from the A.D. 988 conversion of Kievan Rus'? He always marked lesser dates as well, such as the anniversaries of the great Polish Saint Hedwig, or Therese of Lisieux.
Perhaps I invoke this precedent to justify my own preoccupation this week with the July 28 centenary the declaration of war by the Austro-Hungarian Empire upon Serbia, and thus of the beginning of World War I.
It was a beautiful summer, by all accounts, brighter and more temperate than any summer in memory. Most folks, especially those of the capital cities of the major powers, were on vacation. Everyone was aware of the simmering crisis in the Balkans, where terrorists had enraged the imperial power of Austria by the assassination of the heir to the throne. But everyone was convinced that this feud would be resolved, as had the many that had filled the preceding decades. You see, international commerce, communication, and cooperation were at an all-time high, and organizations and processes existed to solve disputes without resorting to military action. So enlightened opinion everywhere just knew that no powers would resort to war since it would disrupt everyone's prosperity too much.
But something went horribly wrong, and soon Russia, Germany, France, Belgium, and Great Britain joined Austria-Hungary and Serbia in launching their entire military might at one another. Dozens of nations, including ours, would be drawn into the conflagration. Millions upon millions would be killed in the slaughter, and the world would be changed forever. The course out of this war would lead directly into the next World War as well as the Cold War, and lay the foundation for the intractable conflict in the Middle East as well as many other realities we "enjoy" to this day.
There are all sorts of maxims we can quote about history, like: those who fail to learn from it are doomed to repeat it; or, that history somehow repeats itself. However, I do not find those compelling. The former gives the false impression that one can learn enough from history to avoid falling into history yourself; the latter seems to imply that history is something that happens to you. More helpful is to remember is that we inhabit history as much as our forebears ever did; history is now, and we are responsible for it.
Unlike the simple self-exceptionalism expressed most concisely a few decades back, after the Soviet empire fell, when a scholar proclaimed “the end of history,” we do well not to think ourselves exempt from history as either a process or as an external force. History is the frame of every human gift and flaw, of every hope and failure – including and especially our own. This fabric unspools to reveal all that has come before, and unites us with those who lived it.
History is where and how we live; history the context of man’s existence, of every human life and event. Because of that, the eternal, unchanging God deigned not only to enter but also to submit himself to this experience of history, to join us where and how we live. Therefore God takes flesh, is born, dies, and rises, on such and such a day in history. It is hardly undue fascination; we do well to mark the days whenever, wherever they recur.