Today is Anzac Day, which always falls in the Easter Season. And Easter is all about Jesus giving his life so that we might live. In the middle of the Gospel of John we hear Jesus saying, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…’ And then later Jesus commands us to love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends…’
That’s what we celebrate on Good Friday – Jesus giving his life out of love for the world.
It’s the message at the heart of Holy Week, and it’s no wonder that those who first framed the Anzac Day liturgies, drew heavily upon these biblical themes. They were not wanting to eclipse Easter by holding up the sacrifice of those who died at Gallipoli but trying to find words that helped to make sense of the huge loss of life, and what better words than those in the Gospel of John.
Anzac Day represents for many our coming of age as a nation on the world stage and has played an important role in our national identity. St John’s is among many chapels and churches marked by memorials to those who fought and those who died both in the first and in the second world war.
In reflecting on the motivation for these memorials, they have often been mistaken for a glorification of war. However, so many who returned as soldiers or medics or chaplains spoke only of the horrors of war, its devastation, if they were able to speak at all. Many found it hard to talk about what they had experienced and in fact wanted only to forget the terror they suffered, if only their nightmares would let them. And they had no-one trained in post-traumatic stress counselling as we do today in our defence forces, and in fact those who suffered from mental health issues often found their character denigrated which further undermined their morale and self-esteem.
No, the motivation was more often the sorrow and impact of grief as well as the hope that the horrific loss of life would not be repeated if we would only hold in our memory what we had lived through. The words of the Anzac liturgy, lest we forget underscores that longing. I still carry vivid memories of an encounter I had 40 years ago with an elderly carpenter and director of music in our congregation. He was in his mid-Nineties, and I had gone to visit him on the eve of Anzac Day. Over the course of our conversation tears welled up in his eyes as he recounted the story of hearing that his older brother had been killed at Gallipoli. For him and for so many others Anzac Day was a day of real grief and loss, and the years since the first World War had not eased that grief.
Woodbine Willie was an Army chaplain in World War 1 who wrote some powerful poetry, voicing the loss of faith that many suffered because of what they saw and endured, and yet his witness to God as both a Sufferer and a healer, pierced to the heart by the sorrow of the sword, did much to comfort and sustain many. He gave soldiers words that made sense of the awful experience of war, while at the same time holding out to us a vision of a world made whole.
With the devastation of the war in Ukraine, and the discovery of mass graves where hundreds of civilians have been shot, I believe that Anzac Day as a National Day of Remembrance can play an important role – not in glorifying war, but quite the opposite, of reminding us of the horrors of war and the costly command Jesus has given us to love one another as he has loved us. Anzac Day can play a role in teaching us the lessons we often fail to learn from history, just as our Christian Faith forms in us a commitment to foster reconciliation and peace in our world.