When spiritualities diverge

When spiritualities diverge

As Anzac Day falls on Easter Monday this year, an armed services chaplain reflects on the nature of the two commemorations within the Australian context.

The year 2011 provides Australian Christians with a rare opportunity.

This year, Easter Day will be celebrated on Sunday, April 24. The following day will see the nation remember Anzac Day.

These days share several similarities, beginning with pre-dawn rituals; but more significantly they are both important to the sense of identity for millions of people.

So how do they relate to each other? What are the opportunities and threats that 2011 presents with these key events being on successive days?

Easter is at the heart of what Christians believe and so is central to their identity as Christians.

The death and resurrection of Jesus is foundational to the meaning and purpose of life for the Christian faith. It provides the motivation for all that Christians do in response to this decisive act of God in human history.

While there is a necessary connection with the Christmas story — Jesus is not just a man but is God incarnate — Christmas is not complete without the Easter narrative.

At Easter, we have the death of one — Jesus — for the sake of many. He dies so that we do not have to.

The foundation for a Christian understanding of Easter is faith in Jesus Christ. Easter Day, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is arguably the most spiritual day of the year for those having this faith.

Yes, we still die physically, but death in this understanding is total separation from God.

For me, that is unimaginable and truly would be the definition of Hell. The point of Easter is that Jesus in his perfection has suffered this terrible fate so that the rest of us in our imperfection may be spared the experience. We have the possibility, opportunity and promise of a new and abiding relationship with God.

In other words, through the death of Jesus comes life and hope, a new understanding of life as God intended from the beginning of time. The world has been changed, with the original purpose of creation — a relationship with God — being renewed.

What does Anzac Day mean to Australians?

Anzac Day, and the story of the first Anzacs, is an important part of the national identity for Australians.

The Anzac legend is foundational for what have become our national values — things like mateship, courage, never giving up, supporting the underdog, overcoming adversity, facing our fears.

For the Australian Defence Force, being a part of this heritage — and the examples of others through history — continues to provide motivation to excel. Professionalism, loyalty, integrity, courage, innovation and teamwork all find their origins in the events of April 25, 1915.

At Gallipoli, young men put their lives at risk for one another, for their country, their King and the Empire.

They died for others, both those they knew and many they did not. And in the end, the Gallipoli campaign ended in defeat and withdrawal.

Yet defeat was not the end. From this ultimately doomed campaign came pride and dignity, a national pride and dignity observed on April 25 each year.

In 1915, Australia was a relatively new nation. Through involvement in World War I, particularly at Gallipoli, the nation was changed.

Some have said that we “lost our innocence” in those battles. Others have said that we stood up and took our place on the world stage.

In any case, through the acts of the Anzacs we were changed, having a new identity and a new sense of identity.

The place (and meaning) of freedom

Anzac Day is a day of remembering. We remember those who have fought, and continue to fight, for the freedoms we enjoy today. In particular, we remember those who have died in the struggle for freedom, both for us and for those oppressed in other parts of the world.

Easter is also about freedom, but a somewhat different understanding of freedom.

The broader context for the Easter story is what Christians call salvation history. This begins with God’s purpose for creation, which becomes corrupted by human freewill.

Various human attempts to overcome this corruption are unsuccessful, so God acts decisively in Jesus to do something about it. The hope for new life that comes through the Easter story is also freedom from the corruption of this world, the corruption that is part of our selfish human nature.

Selfless giving is the ultimate act of freedom. It not only demonstrates the freedom we have, but also contributes to the freeing of others. We see this in Jesus’ freely giving his life on the cross.

We also see it in the soldiers, sailors and airmen who leave family and home to serve us all in the defence of our country.

Are the two acts the same? Not really, but that is what this reflection is all about.

Fundamental differences

The Christian celebration of Easter and the Australian commemoration of Anzac Day share several similar themes. These include a sense of identity, foundational principles, dying for others, new hope coming through death, being changed, and working for freedom.

Yet there are important differences at a fundamental level.

The foundation for a Christian understanding of Easter is faith in Jesus Christ. Easter Day, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is arguably the most spiritual day of the year for those having this faith.

Anzac Day is a day of national identity and pride for Australians.

I would argue that it is the most “spiritual” day of the year in a nationalistic sense. The resurgence in interest and involvement in Anzac Day commemorations shows that it is more than simply a get-together for old soldiers.

Younger Australians want to know and remember where we came from, how we arrived at the values that are now an integral part of being an Aussie.

In essence, this is the challenge and risk for Australian Christians in 2011.

While Easter and Anzac Day share similar themes, they have fundamentally different underlying spiritualities. One is Christian; the other is secular and nationalistic.

It may be tempting to bring these two events together in a single celebration and commemoration. However, they do not belong together. They have different emphases and speak to different contexts.

As a Christian, I look forward to Easter — to sharing the despair, suffering and anguish of Good Friday; to living the celebration of the resurrection with others who share my faith.

As a chaplain in the Royal Australian Air Force, I look forward to Anzac Day — to remembering those who have gone before; to being with those who carry the Anzac heritage today; to providing words of comfort and hope, and a context to all that we do in the uniform we wear.

I am a Christian, an airman and an Australian. I am all of these things, all of the time.

But they are not the same thing. Some events are more significant to one part than another and they should never be confused.

Easter is Easter. Anzac Day is Anzac Day.

Let us commemorate both as we see fit. But do not be confused about what we are doing or why.

The Rev. Alan Williams (aka Chaplain Alan Williams, aka Padre Alan Williams) is a minister of the Uniting Church in Australia serving full-time as a chaplain in the Royal Australian Air Force. He is currently posted to RAAF Base Wagga, although he will be spending Easter and Anzac Day 2011 in the UK on exchange.



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