A Very Gallant Gentleman
When I was a fourth former at Hawera High School, we used to have a weekly library period. The idea was to expose books to kids who might not otherwise notice them: an exercise largely wasted on me because I was not in the habit of noticing very much else. But I went to the library with the rest of my class, and I have to say that I mostly enjoyed it.
One of the things I enjoyed, if that’s the right word, was a picture on the wall. I say “enjoyed”, but the best word would have been inspired, really. Fourth formers are ready to be inspired. The picture was a that of a man walking into a snowstorm, away from a tent in the background, and the caption read, “I am going out, and may be some time.” The man was Captain Lawrence Oates, and the tent was the tent of Robert Falcon Scott and his ill-fated polar exploration companions, none of whom returned alive. I learned all that at the time, and found out very recently that the picture was a print of a 1913 painting by JC Dollman, entitled “A Very Gallant Gentleman”. The line is a quotation from the memorial stone in Captain Oates’ home village.
1913 was just a year after the event Dollman’s painting portrayed, that had occurred in 1912. From our perspective, that’s just on a hundred years ago. As a matter of fact, the centenary of Oates’ death was on March 16, which just also happened to be his own 32nd birthday. There are traditions that believe that only very blessed people get to die on their own birthday.
Whether that’s true or not, Lawrence Oates certainly walked out of the tent in the knowledge that he was about to die, and in the hope that his death would make life a little more likely for those who were with him. Various writers since have suggested that his sacrifice might have been prompted by a combination of factors, not all of them noble, and given human nature, that’s almost certain. Nor did his act produce the desired effect: his companions were also to subsequently perish, and they must have known by then that it was likely. But he did it.
We may honour that fact. Jesus himself said that no one shows greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. Most of us hope not to have to, and most of us are spared the circumstances that will call from us a straight and stark decision, but we are challenged to recognise that sacrifice is a noble thing.
Furthermore, we are called to make on-going sacrifices of our own, for our neighbours’ and for Jesus’ sake. Not, for most of us, the one-off action that takes our life so that others may prosper. But, for all of us, a way of living that puts others first, and that costs us much of what we might otherwise seek to preserve.
The context in which Jesus makes his comment about sacrificial love, (in chapter 15 of John’s gospel), puts the whole thing into a continuum. “The Father loves me,” he says, “and I have loved you. Stay in my love, and love one another as I have loved you. The highest love is to lay down your life.” And very shortly afterwards, he did exactly that. When Jesus went to Calvary, it was not a mistake, nor was he the victim of circumstances or intrigue that got out of control. He was not the subject of a betrayal that caught him unawares, nor just another casualty of Jewish/Roman politics. He was God, in human form, making the sacrifice necessary to make a way for people, all people, to be reconciled to God. He laid down his life: they did not take it from him. When they had tried to do that earlier, many times, he had always said, “Not yet. It’s not time.” When it was time, he did it.
Whatever the details that might have surrounded Lawrence Oates’ death, I was right to be inspired by it all those years ago. It is an example of what Jesus challenges us to. It was a reflection of the sacrifice of Jesus himself. How do we go at laying down our lives for our friends, on behalf of him who laid down his life for us, and did so at a time when we were still enemies?