In Honour of Sacrifice - ANZAC Day Mass

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The Great Wars which have produced the ANZAC tradition increasingly retreat into history. Fewer and fewer Australians were part of these monumental struggles with their atrocious loss of human life and untold suffering. They are now several generations away from young Australians today. They were definitive moments in the history of the last century and profoundly shaped the world as we know it today.

The hundredth anniversary of the event that has shaped ANZAC day, the landings at Gallipoli, will be celebrated next year, 2015, and will no doubt be an event that evokes great interest among Australians. It was this event which gives the particular to our commemoration each year. Yet rather than see these events fade in history, they are having an extraordinary galvanising influence on young people today.

Standing shivering in the cold dawn at Gallipoli has now become a rite of passage for so many young Australians. Draped, as they like to do, with an Australian flag they participate in the services held there with great reverence. They want to tap into this particular piece of Australian history. It has become an important way of discovering something about their identity and heritage as Australians.

Not only are the beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula a draw for young Australians but they also explore the sites of the great battles of the Western Front, and more and more young people are drawn to walk the Kokoda trail in a desire to unite with that particular moment in Australian military history. One cannot visit any of these places without taking time to walk among the graves: the rows of headstones at Lone Pine, or Fromelles, or Bomana. To note the names and the ages of the fallen, to see row after row, stirs the heart. These young men sacrificed their lives for their country. It reduces the heart to silence. A reverential awe steals over the spirit.

From the time of the First World War, over one and a half million Australians have served in the armed forces. Over 100,000 were killed in action and more than 200,000 have been wounded. The theatres of war have varied: Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, Burma, Malaya, Singapore, New Guinea, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Far from home our service personnel have gone to protect their homeland. They have served this nation, have protected this nation and have helped build the character of this nation.

Young Australians are drawn to these locations and to commemorate ANZAC Day not in a desire to glorify war, or to take some political stance. Rather they are drawn to the example of those who served. They are drawn to the example of courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice. They are inspired by the example of past generations of Australians who have given of themselves for their country and those who have paid the ultimate price.

The modern generation has grown up in a country blessed in so many ways. They have not had to pay a price for what they are able to enjoy. When they visit the battle fields, hear the stories, and walk in silence down the rows of graves they are moved. They touch something foreign to their experience, but something which touches their spirit. They are brought into contact with a significant part of our Australian heritage. They come close to deep and abiding truths about humanity and about the price that has to be paid for the freedom we now enjoy.

To die for the sake of the other is a confronting yet inspiring reality. It challenges the narrow self-interest which often preoccupies us. It causes us to examine the motivating principles for our life. It causes us to look beyond what seems reasonable and sensible to what is noble. It asks questions of us: could I do this? The example of sacrifice and service challenges our natural comforts and securities. It invites us to explore self-transcendence, not allowing ourselves to be satisfied with what suits me. We are challenged to look at ourselves and what we live for.  

Standing in the cold dawn at Gallipoli or at one of the hundreds of dawn services across our nation the focus is on those who served. Those who served were ordinary men and women called upon to give of themselves for the sake of their country.

On this day each year we do not so much honour great leaders, though we acknowledge our indebtedness to them, rather we hold up ordinary men and women. The spirit of Anzac is the spirit of ordinary Australians rising to great personal heights of selflessness and sacrifice. We recognise those who have given of themselves not only for the good of their own country, but often have sacrificed themselves because of the needs of other peoples. So today nations, sometimes at the other end of the earth, acknowledge the debt they owe to Australians who came to their aid in desperate times.

The Collect Prayer which opened the Mass captured the intention of the Liturgy:

Almighty everlasting God, You sent your Son to die that we might live, grant, we pray, eternal rest to those who gave themselves in service and sacrifice for their country.

The heart of the Christian faith is the account of sacrifice. The life of Jesus Christ was always oriented towards his death. The Gospels cannot be understood without Calvary. The meaning of his coming amongst us was that he would die for us. His death, as we say in the Liturgy, has set us free, free from the ultimate powers of darkness – evil and death itself.

Over the war cemeteries the Christian cross is often placed as its central feature, sometimes standing in stark relief against the sky among a sea of white headstones. This cross marks these grounds as being forever held sacred. This cross also unites the sacrifice of the fallen with the sacrifice of the Son of God on Calvary.

As the cross is the mark of the sacrifice that is at the heart of Christianity, so we can say that the cemeteries of the fallen mark the sign of what is at the heart of our nation: those who have paid the ultimate price for our freedom. 

In this Mass we remember the fallen. We honour their memory. We commend them to the mercy of God. In this Mass we remember them with gratitude, aware that we now benefit from their sacrifice.

At this annual commemoration we are conscious of the many blessings we enjoy in Australia: freedom, peace and opportunity. We know of many peoples who do not enjoy what we are able to enjoy. We know many long to enter our country to benefit from what we have. We thank God for living in this land and for the blessings that we have in Australia.

This freedom, peace and opportunity are ours today, because others have been prepared to defend this country and protect its freedom. We honour them on this ANZAC day.  We honour all who have fallen in the service of their country.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Tuesday, 23 April 2013