HOMILY ON ANZAC DAY 2020
The Cathedral of St Stephen, Brisbane
The story of ANZAC is a story of death. Gallipoli, where it all started, wasn’t just a defeat; it was a slaughter. When I first saw the place, on a beautiful Aegean summer morning looking across the Dardanelles, it was hard to believe that this was where the horror happened. So too when I first went to one of the great war cemeteries in northern Europe. It was a perfect spring day and the flowers were all in bloom. I remember writing in the visitors’ book: “There’s good blood in this earth. That’s why the flowers are so lovely”.
Beyond the Great War the story of death has continued – war after war after war leaving behind a mountain of corpses, the young who were blown to kingdom come. How strange it can seem then to celebrate Anzac Day each year, even in this eerie landscape that we’ve entered as we battle coronavirus.
Yet it’s not death we celebrate in some dark way. It’s the strange fact of the life that comes from death. “Death is the mother of beauty”, says the poet Wallace Stevens. “Hence from her alone shall come fulfilment to our dreams and desires” (Sunday Morning). The deaths at Gallipoli and in all the other wars may have seemed pointless, and doubly lamentable for that. But on this day we see with another eye – Christians would call it the eye of Easter.
Yes, there was defeat but also a strange victory – the victory that always belongs to self-sacrifice. Yes, there was darkness but also the strange and beautiful light that seems like the dawn. Yes, there was death but also the strange life that death alone can produce. In remembering those who have died we recognize that war is a curse; but in the deaths, even of those unknown, there is blessing of a kind we neither expected nor imagined.
It’s not the curse but the blessing that helped make this country what it is, since we recognize in the agonies of Gallipoli the birth-pangs of a nation. How strange that is – but also true. And the truth echoes around the nation and deep in the nation’s heart, even if the marches are stilled and bands fall silent. Even in this time of distancing and isolation the bond is felt and celebrated. Still we remember – who we are and what helped make us who we are.
Like war itself, the COVID-19 crisis can seem like death; and yet there’s life emerging even now from the horror, unforeseen blessing from the unforeseen curse. After the Great War, the landscape was changed forever; things were never the same again. And that may well be so after this time of affliction has passed. As in war, we are forced to focus on what really matters. This is no time for non-essentials. Much that seemed important now looks less so: it doesn’t really matter or doesn’t matter much. As in war, there is heroism in the midst of all that’s most degrading. Think of the medical staff who exhaust themselves and risk their lives in order to tend the sick: if that isn’t heroism, I’m not sure what is. It’s certainly self-sacrifice. The soldiers at Gallipoli and on all the battle-fields were isolated in their trenches; they were far from family and friends, even if they had their mates; many died alone, face down in the mud with no-one to say good-bye or even give them a proper burial. So there are things in what we’re living through now that can show us more of what the soldiers went through and what their death really meant.
In the end, however, for us who are Christian it’s the death of Jesus that tells the deep truth of today, which is why we celebrate in this way in this place. His death was shocking, a slaughter; it seemed a hopeless defeat. Yet when, amazingly, he stood in the morning light, alive with a life bigger than death, “first-born from the dead” as the New Testament says, his followers realized that his death was a life-giving sacrifice which broke the power of death. It was a victory. Death defeating death – there’s the paradox.
That’s why this morning, in obedience to the command of Jesus, we “do this in memory of [him]”. We celebrate the Eucharist – in memory of him certainly, but also in memory of all who sacrificed themselves on the battle-fields of the world. The word itself “Eucharist” means thanksgiving. So here we give thanks to God for the sacrifice of Christ and for the sacrifice of so many more.
With us in the morning light they gather at the altar on the Anzac Day, as unforgotten as the Risen Jesus who gathers us with them into the feast which the sacrifice alone makes possible. “Death is the mother of beauty. Hence from her alone shall come fulfilment to our dreams and desires”. And that fulfilment shall be the feast where the flowers will be lovely forever.