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The Christian origins and symbolism of Anzac Day

Friday, 24 April 2020  | Darren Mitchell

Lieutenant John Treloar, a devout Methodist, kept a diary of his experience of the Great War. He wrote about his attendance in Cairo at one of the earliest Anzac Day services, led by the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, on 25th April 1916, the first Anzac Day of commemoration honouring those who had fallen at Gallipoli exactly one year before.

He recounts the singing of the hymn On the Resurrection Morning. The mention of this rousing Easter hymn attests to the pervasiveness of Christian belief at the time. In the beginning, Anzac Days were marked principally by a church service where transparent testimony was given to resurrection hope. Treloar would go on to helm the Australian War Memorial as Director for some thirty years. The Memorial building with its traditional cruciform architecture spoke, in his view, to the need for Christian symbolism and sentiment to ‘truly express the affectionate remembrance of the fallen by the people of Australia’. As in Cairo, so in Australia, on that first Anzac Day of commemoration, two Anglican Church leaders, one in Sydney and another in Brisbane, sought also to embed Christian symbolism and sentiment in the Day’s ceremonies. Their liturgical legacy remains in place today.

This Anzac Day, 25th April 2020, will be unique. There will be no public gatherings due to the pandemic restrictions. City and local memorials erected to those who have served Australia will undoubtedly bear wreaths throughout the day, but these floral tributes will be made quietly, without crowds, in ones and twos.

Instead, RSLs and other veterans’ groups have devised a way in which all Australians, perhaps more than usual, might participate in and mark Anzac Day. At 6.00 am on Anzac morning, we are being asked to stand at the end of our driveways or outside the doors of our home. We are being encouraged to do this holding a simple light and stream a short service over our phones to enable us to formally, together, commemorate at dawn.

The essential elements of this virtual service are familiar. They owe their origin to the two Anglicans - the Dean of Sydney, the Very Reverend Albert Talbot, and Brisbane’s Canon David Garland - both chaplains to the first Anzacs.

The 2020 ceremony begins with an acknowledgment of this land’s long-standing custodians, the first Australians. They have a deep tradition of acknowledging dawn, an awakening from the spirit world of dreaming into a new day of life. Among their maxims on formal occasions is ‘As the new day dawns, always remember the past’, a contemporary invocation that on Anzac Day abides with indigenous and settler custom.

Then follows another call to remembrance, The Ode, followed by the sounding of The Last Post, a minute of silence and the further bugle sound, The Reveille. The national anthems of Australia and New Zealand, the ‘A’ and the ‘NZ’ of ANZAC, bring the formal proceedings to a close. In these elements are all that makes an Anzac Day service unmistakeable.

The Ode, an excerpt from Laurence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen, which he composed in 1914 as the horrors of the First World War were unfolding, ends with the line, ‘At the going down of the sun, and in the morn, we will remember them’. Binyon took these words from Deuteronomy 16, an account of the Israelites’ Passover ceremony, an act of remembrance to give thanks to God for their rescue from slavery in Egypt. They were to mark the end of the day, and then the beginning of a new one, so that they would always remember who it was that wrought their salvation. The Ode introduces The Last Post, the signal of death, and The Reveille, the signal of resurrection. In between, we recognise in silent reflection the passage of time between Jesus’ death on Good Friday and his rising to new life on Easter Sunday. The Ode heralds the same act of which Passover was a foretaste, the death and resurrection of Jesus.

This Anzac liturgical form was woven together by Talbot, Garland and others, because they knew that death was swallowed up in Jesus’ victory on the Cross, ushering in a new and lasting peace, guaranteed by his resurrection. At the time, in the second and third decades of the twentieth century, when Anzac Day was taking shape, most Australians understood these connections between Anzac sounds and words, and the Easter story of Jesus.

Unmoored as we are today from these Christian roots, the familiar patterns bequeathed to us no longer speak with clarity. But every Anzac Day, when we gather at dawn, we proclaim the resurrection. Pared back to its simplest form, Anzac Day ceremony draws directly on this Christian heritage. As we stand on the perimeters of our homes this Anzac Day, we will be honouring those who served, and died, that we might prosper as Australians and New Zealanders. May we also employ the Anzac liturgical elements to pray for the spiritual renewal of our nation.

Darren Mitchell is the Zadok regular film reviewer. He has recently submitted a doctoral thesis for examination to the Department of History, University of Sydney, on Anzac Rituals: Secular, Sacred, Christian, a study of the Christian influence on early Anzac commemoration practice.

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