A homily by Rev Dr Greg Elsdon for ANZAC Day Evensong 2018
(Micah 4:1-4 and John 15:9-17)
Together with Lest We Forget, the words ‘Greater love has no man than this’ have become deeply and powerfully lodged in the secular liturgy of Anzac Day. And as we saw last year, any attempt to use these words to draw attention to the plight of victims of war, violence or injustice in other contexts is likely to draw immediate and savage condemnation.
Many Australians have mixed feelings and emotions when Anzac Day comes around each year. On the one hand we experience a deep and solemn sense of mourning and grief as we recall the brutality and inhumanity experienced by so many. On the other hand, we feel a profound sense of gratitude to, and pride in, those men and women who served their country with indescribable courage and self-sacrifice.
But it is not unusual for us to experience feelings of disquiet, even awkwardness, at the way these legitimate and worthy responses to the events of The Great War can so easily deteriorate into an almost cultish reverence or romanticisation of war and violence. In recent years there has even been a discernible push by some to elevate Gallipoli and the ‘Anzacs’ to the status of the ‘foundational events and stories’ of our Australian identity.
Lest we forget is the call for active remembrance of war not in order to glorify war or indulge ourselves in bouts of nationalistic pride. It is rather the call to acknowledge the gravity of the events and the consequences of what happened not just in places such as Villers-Bretonneux and Gallipoli, but wherever people have been killed in conflicts between nations.
But Lest we forget is also a call to mourn and to lament the horrors of all war; to pay respect to the countless millions whose lives were brutally taken or permanently disfigured or deranged – and to commit ourselves to do all within our power, our spheres of influence, to reject the deathly ways of violence and the romanticisation of war.
Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs —
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Lest we Forget
What will we do with our remembering?
What does our remembering mean for us?
What does our remembering demand of us?
Where will our remembering take us?
What value is our remembering,
– if it does not inspire us to commit ourselves to the ways of peace and reconciliation?
“In a society and world in which military metaphors and binary choices are extended increasingly to international relationships, immigration, customs, policing and welfare, Anzac Day is an occasion for dwelling compassionately on the things that bind us together, not those that separate us into allies and enemies.” [Andrew Hamilton SJ]
For those of us who encounter God in the life and teachings of Jesus, Lest we Forget is a call to eschew violence and learn the ways of peace and justice – following the one who dares us to learn what it means to love enemies and repay evil with good.
In Sydney’s Anzac War Memorial there is a bronze sculpture by artist Rayner Hoff titled Sacrifice. It depicts the body of a dead soldier held aloft on a shield, his arms draped across a sword in a posture of crucifixion, like a sacrificial alter. Australian theologian Ben Meyer has comments, “It is a majestic image, a portrayal of worship, devotion and sacrifice. It’s hard to imagine a more vivid representation of the cult of war that lies at the heart of the modern nation-state.”
Rayner Hoff also sculptured another bronze, which wasn’t displayed. He called it The Crucifixion of Civilisation. Of this sculpture Ben Meyer writes;
“In this sculpture, the form of a young naked woman (symbolising Peace) is crucified atop a pile of corpses, limbs, weapons, and other wreckage of war. She is crucified on the weapons of Mars, the Roman god of war. The huge helmet of Mars gapes over her like some monstrous ravening mouth. From a distance, the whole hideous scene forms a traditional symbol of victory. Hoff himself described the sculpture like this: ‘Adolescent Peace is depicted crucified on the armaments of the ravisher, the war god, Mars. The Greek helmet animalistically gapes over the head of expiring Peace, the cuirass of the body armour hard and brutal in contrast to her lithe woman’s body’.”
Peace, Shalom, human well-being … sacrificed on the altar of the cult of war. It’s disturbing and deeply challenging.
We’ve been at it for a long time, this warmongering. You’d think we might have learned something by now. But it seems not
700 years before Jesus, the Jewish prophet Micah – who lived surrounded by wars and rumours of wars – eloquently captured the human longing for peace and peacefulness:
3 He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
4 but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. [Micah 4:3-4]
On this Anzac Day, may this graphic portrayal of human wholeness be that which calls us forward. May this vision of God’s Shalom be that which inspires and shapes our living.
And may the God of Peace be with us all.