Walking on sacred ground: making sense of Anzac
Last Saturday, much of Australia would normally have stopped what it is doing, and in religious ceremonies all over the country, would have observed Anzac Day – a day which is increasing described as the most sacred day in our national calendar. Even for those who don’t normally participate in the worship life of a 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
But not this year. This year, Anzac Day was different. There was a movement underway that encouraged people to stand in their driveways at dawn and light a candle in remembrance. This difference in how we acknowledge Anzac Day gives us a pause to think about what we do and commemorate.
One of the challenges the church has regarding Anzac Day is how we meet our communities as they attend religious ceremonies and 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.
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 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. We can honour the fallen while allowing their memory to raise pertinent questions about the powers that were prepared to sacrifice them.
Without resorting to violence, Jesus confronted, challenged and resisted empire to such an extent that they had to sacrifice him to protect their various interests. He proclaimed love for neighbour and 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 subsequent Anzac Days, 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 the people of God, we should stand with all of the victims of war and oppression 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.