In service and sacrifice - Anzac Day Vigil Mass

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As Anzac Day dawns tomorrow Australian eyes will be drawn to the beaches of Gallipoli. We will remember the dawn landing which occurred there one hundred years ago. Anzac cove has become a place of pilgrimage for Australians, particularly the young. There they can walk among the rows upon rows of headstones in perfectly kept cemeteries and look at the names, but more significantly note the ages. They were mere boys.

Those who have made the trip to visit Gallipoli walk around in silence and in reflection. People are struck by the huge loss of life. There is the heavy realisation of innocent young men killed in their hundreds, often in bayonet charges against enemy positions under withering machine gun fire. They knew as they leapt from their trenches that they were facing death.

It seems so tragic, so sad. Families way back home, in isolated farms and country towns, learning of the death of a son, a brother, a friend. 

For many of us it is an occasion to be aware of relatives who served in the First World War. For example, my grandfather born of parents who were born in Hobart served in the 1st Battalion who were involved in the Gallipoli landing. He was in the reinforcement group who replenished those lost in Gallipoli and joined them once they had returned after the evacuation to Egypt. He would see service in some of the bloodiest campaigns of the Western Front.

Incidentally, the chalice used in the Mass tonight belonged to Fr T G O’Donnell, chaplain to Australian forces on the Western Front.

This Mass this evening has as its source the Funeral Liturgy of the Catholic Church. The Collect Prayer which opened the Mass captured the intention of the Liturgy:
Almighty everlasting God, who 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.
This evening, then, we gather to pray for those who have died in the service of their country.

We think of the Anzacs at Gallipoli. But we also remember the horrors of the Western Front in France. We remember the Second World War and the many other places where Australian service personnel have served, more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq.  

Anzac Day each year invites all Australians to remember those who served their country in time of war and particularly to honour those who have died during active service. The readings of tonight’s Mass have been chosen from those recommended for a funeral liturgy.

We recall the human reality of the death of – most often – a young man or woman in the prime of life. We are acutely aware that the death of this person was occasioned by their service to their country in a theatre of war. These simple facts invite us to look deeper into the meaning of such sacrifice.

Here it is that the Christian mystery comes to assist us. The defining symbol of Christianity is the cross, or more appropriately the crucifix. It is the depiction of a man in the prime of life being horribly executed. The crucifix presents far more than the depiction of the death of a man. It stands for far more than even the injustice of an innocent man being betrayed into the hands of his enemies.

We know that this man, Jesus of Nazareth, was the Son of God. His heavenly Father sent him on a mission and that mission was quite precisely to offer his life for the salvation of humanity. In the Gospel Jesus said, “Now my soul is troubled, what shall I say, Father save me from this hour”. These words reveal the inner struggle of Jesus, the man. Like every human being he wanted to cling to life. Death was a frightening prospect. The suffering he would have to endure caused him to recoil from his fate.

Yet we know that he embraced what was asked on him. He suffered and suffered terribly. He was crucified and publically humiliated. He was abandoned by all but a handful.

From the cross he cried out, “Father, forgive them”. And finally in his surrender to the powers of death he said, “Into your hands I commend my spirit”.

The cross is a reminder of death but it is also the luminous declaration of the depth of love:
• The love of a Father who was prepared to allow his Son to suffer so and die.
• The love of Jesus himself who was motivated not by his own self-interest, but by an overriding preparedness to do what was necessary for the good of humanity.

On this Anzac eve we Australians remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives. They died in the service of their country. As in the Christian mystery, we can declare that these deaths were for the good of others. They are seen as acts of sacrifice. They have meaning beyond themselves.

Thus our opening prayer appropriately expresses what is in our hearts this night:
Almighty everlasting God, who 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.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Thursday, 23 April 2015