An Anzac Day Meditation

An Anzac Day Meditation image

Do you thank God for Anzac Day? It is no doubt easier when it falls on weekday and we get the public holiday. But we know there is more to it.
I must admit that I love the Last Post. It is so mournful, so evocative, so sad. 

What do you think of Anzac Day? I have memories of a particular Anzac Day ceremony when I was a kid. It was held in the blazing sun up at war memorial in Neutral Bay . The event became its own war of attrition as kids keeled over left right and centre;  the girl beside me threw up with sunstroke and the splash of her vomit narrowly avoided my shoes.  That is probably the closest I will ever come to being wounded in battle. 

We maintained the Anzac spirit by standing to attention listening to the interminable speeches, until the blessed relief of the Last Post which was made all the more poignant as they carted off the kids who had ‘fallen’. 

I can also remember the view in the sixties when the ‘one day of the year’, as an old play was called, was derided. The drunken diggers who sprawled around, playing their games of two up were held in some kind of contempt. Times have changed and now the language of sacred is bandied about and the language of sacrifice joins it.

I remember being told about how a nation was born on the bloody beaches of Gallipoli and then questioning this in the light of Peter Weir’s iconic film. It was certainly a bloody birth but was it worth it? 

I remember my own visit to Gallipoli and my shock at the steepness of the cliffs where the landing was attempted against the relatively easier terrain that was intended. I recall the battlefield itself, hardly bigger it seemed than a backyard tennis court, admittedly surrounded by TV cameras and stands readying to broadcast live the dawn service around the world. And I remember the moving experience of reading the words of Ataturk about our Australian soldiers inscribed on the war memorial there. 

It is a day that still arouses passions and its meaning is contested especially as the Anzac spirit is invoked in all sorts of situations and yes, ongoing involvement in wars. 

Some weep for the folly and the waste of the enterprise. Others draw inspiration from the bravery and generosity shown by so many of the soldiers. Others are uneasy about the alliance to nationalism. 

Hard questions are asked: Was the generosity of young Australians manipulated by a government committed to war? Was the Gallipoli expedition planned and conducted with a seriousness befitting the preciousness of the lives at stake? Were the Anzacs simply lambs to the slaughter for no real gain?  If this is an example of sacrifice who is sacrificing what? 

The occasion certainly seems to be an attempt to make sense out of tragedy; to make sense out of the senseless slaughter of youth.
Maybe more broadly it is an attempt to try and find meaning in the meaninglessness of death. Perhaps it is an attempt to help us see that a noble death might somehow make it all right for a world that lives in slavery to the fear of death (Hebrews 2:15).  

There is a reverence for those who, however misguidedly, felt that there was something worth living and dying for; for making the ‘ultimate sacrifice’.  
 

There’s a question posed right there isn’t there? Maybe this is part of the fascination for our culture that maybe finds it hard to conceive of anything worth dying for except perhaps a spectacular dessert or an article of clothing that is ‘simply to die for’? Of course even that game might be changing as we now see a steady trickle of young Australians heading over to the Middle East to participate in another so-called holy war. 

For who, or what would you make the ultimate sacrifice? 

I must admit that this is one of the questions Anzac day poses for me personally…for whom would I die? 

I glibly say my wife and children of course and then silently pray that this will never be tested. 

Who, or what would I die for? I found myself reading Jesus’ words in Mark 8 about taking up one’s cross and following him; losing one’s life to save it. I caught myself reflecting again how happy I was with a metaphorical reading of this but not so sure how literally I would like to have to take these words, even for the cause of Christ. 

I remember our third daughter’s first experience of Anzac day in kindergarten at school coming home and inviting us to come along to the Isaac day service at school. A great slip of the tongue I felt at the time. 

Because of the emphasis on sacrifice, ANZAC day is often spoken of in a way that is similar to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Certainly Anzac Day resembles the cross in the sense that there are a variety of theories concerning its significance and it is a contested event. But there is a link with sacrifice amongst other things and that is what I want to reflect on a little more and perhaps we can exploit this link but it is a Romans 5 link…a ‘how much more’ link.

Sacrifice is an ambivalent word in our world. 

There are at least two prepositions that can follow sacrifice. We can ‘sacrifice to’ and we can ‘sacrifice for’. Our world recoils at the first and lauds the second. 

Anzac Day is all about the second, ‘sacrifice for’…sacrifice for others. We admire those who make sacrifices for others and Jesus’ words from John 15 are often used to describe what is going on, ‘greater love has no-one that he should lay down his life his friends’. This of course begs the question of willingness in a military situation, what does it mean to speak of ‘friends’ in a multi-party conflict…but the notion is there somehow still isn’t it and invoked?

Some lament the loss or increasing loss of this notion of ‘sacrifice for’. As our social ties loosen and materialistic individualism takes hold is the notion of ‘sacrifice for’ weakening…there’s that question again… for who or what would you consider making a sacrifice?

But the words from John 15 connect us to the other aspect of sacrifice because of course they are spoken by the Lord Jesus in the shadow of the cross.  This other aspect, this other preposition is more controversial…the idea of ‘sacrifice to’ and here’s the rub. For Christian believers the notion of ‘sacrifice to’ is an essential element if not the essence of what is going on when the Lord Jesus dies on the cross. His death is an atoning sacrifice, a propitiation of his Father’s wrath, taking the punishment that is rightly ours as he dies in our place.  

This is not a universally popular view as we well know. Many recoil at the violence that is at the heart of this notion of sacrifice to assuage the Father’s wrath. It is felt that the practice of sacrifice marks out the savage, that it is dangerously wrong, atrocious and cruel. The absence of sacrifice as traditionally practiced is a mark of progress and we may say amen to much of that except that the language of this kind of sacrifice is there in our DNA, it is through our Scriptures.

The idea of sacrifice to this God for the forgiveness of sins is right through the Biblical narrative and provides the narrative thread that leads to the understanding of the New Testament authors of the death of Jesus as a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for sin.
 In the death of Jesus, Father and Son together plan salvation for their people, The Father does not work out a terrible contradiction in his character but expresses the complex richness of his character in exacting a just penalty for sin out of love for and on behalf of the very people who have sinned against him.

The words of Romans 3: 21-26; Romans 5.5-11; Hebrews 10:1-14 and so many other places take us there.

A sacrifice to God has been made by the one who is both priest and victim, sacrificer and sacrifice. Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life the sheep and the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus both ‘sacrifices to’ and ‘sacrifices for’ and it is only on the basis that he has ‘sacrificed to’ that his people are freed to ‘sacrifice for’ others. 

There is an end to sacrifice because Jesus was the full perfect and sufficient sacrifice for sin. We use the language of sacrifice but we do not bring a lamb, goat or pigeon to our church meetings. Instead we use the metaphor of sacrifice to describe our whole hearted commitment to the Lord..

There is a spur to love for others and sacrifice for others in the name of the Kingdom ruled by the one who has done this.

And there is hope in the resurrection and promises of God, the goodness of God, in the light of which, no sacrifice is too great to contemplate. 

As we contemplate Anzac Day, we thank God for the sacrifice of the Son for our sins and all it means: a sacrifice to God; a sacrifice for us; let us pray that the Lord will help us to comprehend better the mystery of the cross; never to be ashamed of the cross and to continue to work out what it means to live lives won by this sacrifice. 

Dr Bill Salier is Principal of Youthworks College and Director of Theology.

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