ANZAC Day...a Christian ritual?
At the going down of the sun
and in the morning
We will remember them. .
Development of a Ritual
During ceremonies for Anzac Day around Australia and New Zealand, people stand for one minute’s silence to remember those who have lost their lives in war and to reflect on the meaning of the day. The minute’s silence has been part of the ritual since the first commemorations of Anzac Day on 25 April 1916.
On the 10 January 1916, the Queensland Anzac Day Commemoration Committee (ADCC) was formed at a public meeting in Brisbane. The gathering was chaired by the Premier, T J Ryan, and included leaders of the Roman Catholic, Church of England, Presbyterian and Methodist Churches, the Salvation Army, members of parliament, the mayors of Brisbane and South Brisbane, members of local councils and military representatives. The honorary secretary was an army chaplain, Canon D J Garland. The composition of the ADCC was an extraordinary achievement for a time of sectarian conflict. The committee worked effectively to see Anzac Day systematically recognised throughout Queensland, a fine witness to the spirit of ANZAC in which hostility gives way to peace.
Garland was asked by the committee to devise a program which could be used throughout the State to commemorate Anzac Day. In 1921, committee member H J Diddams, who wrote a brief history of the movement, sermons and addresses in the Anzac commemoration, recalled that the first program included a minute’s silence. We may venture to suggest that this tradition was born in
Historian Joan Beaumont surmises that Anzac Day has rituals with a semi-sacred quality that it retains to this day because in 1916 Anzac Day happened to fall two days after Easter Sunday (Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, 2013, p. 180). Yet an examination of the work of the ADCC demonstrates that the Christian nature of the commemoration was not an accident due to the proximity of Easter – it was deliberate. Christian references on Anzac Day to sacrifice and life after death are summarised by the oft-quoted text: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13).
The support that this form of commemoration received not only in Queensland but elsewhere in Australia and New Zealand shows that the Christian nature of the day resonated with the people of Australasia at the time. The program was designed by a Church of England clergyman for a society with a mostly Christian background. Yet it needed to be a moderate form of Christian expression to avoid dissension between the denominations and also to cater for those who had little or no faith. The success of the order of service may be due to the fact that Christianity breathed softly through the ceremony.
People often refer to the ‘sacred’ nature of Anzac Day. This is a strong religious word. Anzac Day is not simply an expression of civic religion imbued with some vague spirituality. It draws from Christianity but expresses it in a manner which is acceptable to those with a wide range of religious or non-religious backgrounds. One hundred years later the Christian basis of Anzac Day breathes softer still, but it is unmistakably there.
Aspects of our Remembrance
What are we celebrating on Anzac Day: ancestor day, martyr day, national day, day of the dead, day of peace, an end of war?
The Australian War Memorial home page notes: Anzac Day goes beyond the anniversary of the landing on Gallipoli in 1915. It is the day on which we remember Australians who served and died in a ll wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations. The spirit of Anzac, with its human qualities of courage, mateship and sacrifice, continues to have meaning and relevance for our sense of national identity.
Anzac Day seems strange to outsiders. What appears to be a celebration of Australia's greatest defeat is in essence a commemoration of those who died serving our nation in battle. Although it is a military day, it is not used to demonstrate power, continue feuds, or glorify war. The Anzac Day parade focuses on people not military hardware. It is a day for Australians to remember the anguish of war and build bridges with past enemies; to praise the character of soldiers who did it tough and showed strength of character in the face of adversity.
These human aspects of the day can be attributed to the fact that its symbolism originated with veterans rather than politically motivated officialdom.
They shall grow not old,
as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them,
nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
(Ode to the Fallen)
Whom do we remember? The previous verse of Binyon’s poem speaks of those who went with songs to the battle; they were young, straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow. What are your images when you hear the ode? Courage under fire... or is it grace under pressure? What symbols, thoughts, prayers, feelings are conjured for us in these simple words?
Then we might ask ourselves: have we really remembered them? Do we remember the women and aboriginal diggers who served? Do we remember those left behind: the widows, widowers, orphans, families torn apart, survivors living in pain and shell-shocked with nightmares, those who were ostracised because they were not allowed to serve? Remembrance is about making the estranged, forgotten or unloved belong, that is, to re-member them in our community.
Alan Seymour’s 1958 play The One Day of the Year deals with a fatherson conflict on the theme of Anzac Day. Alf, the returned soldier, talks tough: I'm a bloody Australian, mate, and it's because I'm a bloody Australian that I'm gettin' on the grog. It's Anzac Day this week; that's my day; that's the old diggers’ day. It is Alf’s son Hughie who is learning not so much to gain an education of the mind, but... an emotional education; he needs to feel. To feel the Anzac spirit is to understand that the day belongs to no-one especially but to all at the same time. It is a day to remember those who have fought the good fight and to ‘re-member’ them among us.
There are obvious similarities between the passion, death and resurrection of Christ and the Anzac story. Both provide foundational principles for the identity of a community; both address themes of dying for others, new hope beyond death, transformation, and working for liberation and freedom. Those of us who are Christian, however softly the message of Christ breathes, will put our Anzac Day into the context of Easter. During the one minute’s silence on this Anzac Day, from the rising of the sun till its setting, yes, we will remember them, lest we forget.