Wednesday, 24 April 2013

When the sacred and the secular collide - the meaning of ANZAC

I posted this on Anzac Day last year, and it seemed like a good idea to do so again, after reading quite a few Facebook comments on the topic.

Today is Anzac Day, and much of Australia will stop what it is doing, and in religious ceremonies all over the country, will observe what is increasing described as the most sacred day in our national calendar.

It has also been described as the day that best describes the nature of our national character. Even for those who don’t normally participate in the worship life of the Church, Anzac Day is the day where many of the public gather in reverent public rituals or liturgies. At shrines, memorials and monuments in every town and municipality across the country, people gather to remember and honour the fallen, and to honour and express gratitude to those who survived and can participate in marches.

I remember as a small child going to the Anzac march in Newcastle with my grandfather, who has served in the 12th Light Horse in Palestine in WW1. This would be followed with beer and two up (though not by me I hasten to add!) in the Merewether RSL. I also remember ceremonies at my school, where at a certain time we would all stop, go out into the playground, and recite the ode and sing the recessional hymn. While I was struck with the hushed solemnity of both march and service, I am not sure I really understood exactly what it was all about. While feeling sorry for soldiers who had died, the ceremony was little more than a solemn religious occasion which I was required to take part in once a year.

What is it about this day that makes it ‘sacred’? What do the public mean when they speak of some of the larger memorials as ‘shrines’? Why is that we find bible verses inscribed at these monuments and shrines? In an increasingly secular and atheistic society, why do more and more people – particularly young people – gather each year at religious services?

The war memorial in Hyde Park is a great example of a place where the sacred and secular collide in an outstanding way. For those of you who have not seen it, the shrine itself is in the style of classical architecture and its only inscription, “Let silent contemplation be your own only offering” is from the Greek leader Pericles. The first thing to note is that it is called a ‘cenotaph’, which is NT Greek for ‘empty tomb’. Already in the name, we find the Christian idea of resurrection subtly woven into the structure. At the centre of this ‘empty tomb’ is a sculpture called ‘The Sacrifice’. It comprises a bronze group of sculptures depicting the recumbent figure of a young warrior who has made the supreme sacrifice; his naked body lies upon a shield which is supported by three womenfolk, representing his mother, wife or lover and sister. In the arms of one is a child, representing the future generations for whom the sacrifice has been made. You can see it at

The group rises phoenix-like from symbolic flames of sacrifice, which radiate from the base. The women represent the living — the soldier the dead. He signifies the past — they hold the future in the child one of them carries. Together the figures are meant to embody the abstract concept of sacrifice. The description tells us that the figures are welded together structurally into one form, so they also represent a complex unity signifying national sacrifice. The figure of the young man is clearly cruciform, and evokes the cross of Jesus.

Rayner Hoff, the sculptor, intended two other figures to be placed in the memorial. One, called The Crucifixion of Civilisation, was denounced by the church. It depicts a naked female figure on a cross representing peace, with a pyramid of broken soldiers, corpses, weapons, helmets, and the debris of battle at the foot. Hoff described the symbolism of his central figure: "Adolescent Peace is depicted crucified on the armaments of the ravisher, the war god, Mars."

This monument, had it ever been built, would have undoubtedly contradicted the glorification of war. Interestingly, it was opposed primarily by the Catholic church of the day, who denounced it as “only fit for Protestants”. You can make of that what you will! The National War Memorial in Adelaide is similar. On the front, the figure within the arch represents the spirit of Duty, bearing in its hands a sword shaped as a cross. This figure is the vision seen by the group standing on the stage in front. Also like the Hyde Park memorial, we have a depiction of the aftermath of war on the reverse wall. Another winged spirit is depicted in the arch, but this time it symbolises the attributes of womanhood, and reminiscent of the Pieta, the spirit carries on its left arm the limp figure of a dead hero, while in its right hand it holds a cross-like sword.


In other less dramatic memorials around the country we find quotations from the bible, the most popular being John “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. Such memorials are frequently described as sacred places, and often have a small daily service, invoking ritual and religion for those who are present.

The feeling of sacrifice that permeates Anzac Day surely can only be explained by its conscious and unconscious references to the sacrifice of Jesus. Hence on Anzac day, we find the non-church going public willing to speak of fallen soldiers as making the ultimate sacrifice. Canon David John Garland, the man credited with the instigation of the modern Anzac day in the early 1920s, described it thus: The memorial in its noble dignity proclaims, as befits a Christian people, the great sacrifice of Calvary; and unites therefore the sacrifice of those who also laid down their lives for their friends. Its inscription is no less dignified than the memorial itself: Their Name Liveth for Evermore…On Anzac Day we gather collectively, and plead for them the Sacrifice of Calvary, to which they united themselves by offering their souls and bodies as a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice, after the example of Him who by word and from the pulpit of the Cross taught that “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Clearly, Jesus’ death and resurrection was related to the meaning of the sacrifice of young lives in war. It was, after all, the death and resurrection of Jesus that made it possible to see any hope at all in the mass slaughter of young men. In Jesus’ sacrificial act on Calvary, and his subsequent resurrection, we see the groundwork for the belief that those who had died defending others would still live on, and their memories would continue to be honoured.

So Anzac day has a theology that is capable of bringing thousands of people in touch with the divine, and it offers them a fleeting experience or encounter with the Godhead, though perhaps not too many who attend would articulate their feelings quite in these terms.

Despite these heavily religious overtones, or even perhaps because of them, Anzac Day commemorations do not always sit comfortably with many Christians. While we recognize the meaning in Jesus’ sacrificial death, we also hear his words when he calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. When his enemies came against him with military force, Jesus did not resort to reciprocal violence to defend himself or his cause. He allowed the machinery of might and power to add him to its seemingly endless blood-stained list of sacrificial victims. Jesus gave us no endorsement and no precedent for taking up arms in military conflict.

So where does that leave us on the day when our nation commemorates those who have fought and fallen in war? How do we meet our communities as they attend religious ceremonies to mourn the sacrificial dead? Can we participate in honouring the fallen without betraying the gospel of the Prince of Peace? Does Anzac Day provide us with a bridge into the secular community?

I think it possible, as long as we can resist aspects of the commemoration that have been manipulated to support the system that produced all the killing in the first place. In the verses we have heard from the book of the Revelation (Rev. 7:9-17), we find an enormous crowd, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and languages, gathered before the Lamb who was slain, dressed in white robes and waving palm branches as they worship God with loud voices. And Revelation tells us that this enormous crowd are “they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb?

This is interesting in light of our question, because here we have a great crowd of the fallen, those who have made the ultimate sacrifice of being martyred in the great ordeal. This passage invites us to think about how the vision it presents might connect with the Anzac commemorations. We could go in at least two very different directions with it.

The biblical vision could be used quite uncritically to support the standard Anzac agenda. Here are the great crowd of the glorious fallen gathered before the throne of the God in whose service they laid down their lives in the great ordeal. We could easily connect that with the Anzac Day services and blithely go along with using the honouring of the fallen to reinforce the implied message that the idea of ‘fighting to defend God, King and country’ is indeed a sacred purpose for which one should be prepared to make such a sacrifice.

But honouring the fallen does not require us to swallow the propaganda of war. We can honour the fallen and acknowledge their sacrifice without having to support the system that sacrificed them. We can even hope and pray that those who were killed in war might find their place among the great multitude of white-robed martyrs who worship God before the Lamb who was slain without suggesting that there is some sort of moral equivalence between them and the Lamb. They do have this in common: they are both the sacrificial victims of a system that relied on the notion that some must be sacrificed in order to preserve the security of established interests.

We can honour the memory of those who have been sacrificed in war without having to endorse either the ideologies that they were sacrificed to defend, or the actions by which they defended them. For at the same time as Jesus accepts the worship of the white-robed multitude, he honours them as fellow victims with him and wipes away every tear from their eyes. Far from neglecting their memory, it is in remembering and honouring this multitude of victims that Jesus turns the spotlight of truth on the violent system that demanded their lives.

Perhaps, on Anzac Day, we too can bring these things together. Just as Jesus exposed the systemic oppression of the people and called all to the kingdom of God, so too we can honour the fallen while allowing their memory to raise pertinent questions about the powers that were prepared to sacrifice them. The Great War has often been described as the war to end all wars, and the Christian notion of sacrifice to improve the lot of others seems to have been adopted in this explanation. It is quite likely that those that survived the war across the various nations felt that they owed the fallen a debt of blood, and it was necessary to ensure that the millions had not suffered and died in vain.

The soldiers of the Great War in particular believed that they had laid the groundwork for building a renewed society under God, one that guaranteed justice and equity to all citizens at home and an international order that made the recurrence of such destructive conflict impossible in the future – an ideal that closely parallels the Christian ideal of the Kingdom of God. But anyone who studies history knows that any war appears to only sow the seeds of the next war.

Without resorting to violence, Jesus confronted, challenged and resisted the victim-makers to such an extent that they had to sacrifice him to protect their various interests. He proclaimed love for enemy. When God raised him from the dead and he returned, he appeared to speak powerful words of reconciliation, love, peace and forgiveness.

Perhaps on Anzac Day especially, at the rising of the sun, and at its going down, we should remember the victims of war sacrificed to earthly empires, and remember all those who have become victims of the corruption, madness and greed that characterises our world. As we gather here as the people of God, we should stand with all of the victims, and with all those who have been sacrificed down through the ages. And we should bear witness along with them that the powers of corruption and death can be defeated by the power of love and life, through words of reconciliation, love, peace and forgiveness, spoken not just to our friends, but to our enemies as well. Perhaps then can peace be a real possibility in our world.

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