On the occasion of Anzac Day I wanted to share a few reflections.
We’re all familiar with the Ode, the verse that has been recited on occasions of military commemoration in Australia since 1921.
Well, it’s actually a single stanza from a longer poem called “For the Fallen” by English poet Laurence Binyon:
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we who are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As stars are known to the Night.
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.
I used to go to Dawn Services or indeed walk through the War Memorial here in Canberra when I was a kid and just starting to think through these things.
And I went through a period where I wondered why it is that we mark Anzac Day with such solemnity and honour.
Is it because we glory in war itself?
Is it some misguided notion that all the wars that we’ve ever fought have been good and right and worthy wars?
Is it pure patriotism, the idea that service to our nation is the ultimate cause?
If those were the reasons, then we’d be wrong to do so, because there’s little glory in war; some wars do seem to have been pointless; and patriotism … well, it’s not the highest virtue, and it can be taken too far.
Yet we honour those who fought in these very causes. Binyon’s poem actually tells us why. It’s not for those things per se, although you may see hints of some of those things.
There’s something deeper.
It’s something about them.
It’s something about them which, in the license of the poet, is immortal: the “stars that shall be bright when we are dust”. Something that lives on.
This poem tells us that their deaths were not like the deaths of others. It says that their deaths were “august” and “royal”.
It also says that, yes, “England mourns for her dead across the sea”, but also at the same time, it says “with proud thanksgiving”, so there’s a kind of a paradox.
There’s something good in this. What exactly is it?
Well, there’s something in their spirit that the poet wishes to claim, to own, to give credit to, and to identify with. In fact, he wants the whole country to do so. He says, “Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit”. Who is “her”? It’s England.
As a kid, I might well have wondered what was going on, and thought that it was perhaps foolish to give this honour and say these poetic things about what in hindsight looks to have a lot of problems.
But when it comes to the Anzacs, it’s this spirit which we all know.
That is to say, the virtues that they demonstrated, the character that they displayed; the kind of character that would lead them to make an utterly selfless sacrifice of unthinkable cost and unthinkable magnitude for the sake of others – that’s what is honoured. We honour their sacrifice.
The poem says that they are “fallen in the cause of the free”. So by their sacrifice, the ultimate loss of their freedom, they were actually seeking to secure, as best they knew how, the freedom of others whom they would never see and never know.
They did this even though they were the best and the fairest of those who were fighting for freedom. They were “young, straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow”.
And they went willingly. Again, with poetic license, “they went with songs to the battle” and did it “against odds uncounted”, and they even gave their commitment right to the end and paid the ultimate cost: “They fell with their faces to the foe.”
Those who scoff and look back and wag their fists at ‘pointless wars’, and turn up their noses at ‘blind patriotism’, and generally criticise the past, I often wonder: well, if you were living in that past, and if that was what you knew, and that was the context you found yourself in, would you have had these desires?
It’s doubtless that it was a patchwork of motivations and it was complex, but as a generalisation, this notion of the valour that is in this kind of sacrifice was there. To show that kind of valour is a desire that many of those Anzacs and many other soldiers have pursued.
Would you have done that to fight for your countrymen, for their freedom, for people you’ve never met or known, for the ultimate cost of violent death?
Would you have “fallen in the cause of the free”?
There’s something quite remarkable about this; quite profound. What was it that made them do it? Why?
I’ve been thinking about that, and I’ve realised that our sense of what is good so often comes from cultural influences of which we can be quite unconscious.
Hugh Dolan writes, of the Anzacs who went over to Egypt for training, “For the soldiers and nurses of Australia and New Zealand, Egypt had been a colour plate in a Bible, the land of Moses and the Pharaoh.”
That’s how many of them would have thought about it. Why? Well, because these guys were overwhelmingly of the Christian faith.
In fact, everyone was – well over 95% of the population. They would have read the Bible, or had it read to them. They attended church. They believed in God and believed in Jesus Christ, or at least in a general sense.
And so as they were marinated in a culture that had a lot of Christian ideals, I think that those beliefs along with others would have impacted them and what motivated them.
Doubtless for many, as I said, their actions were informed by vague and imperfect things, but they must have all known about an ultimate sacrifice.
They must have all known about an ultimate sacrifice that they highly valued: as Jesus says in John 15:13, “Greater love has no man than this, than to lay down his life for his friends.”
Jesus is speaking of Himself, of course, because that’s what He did as the ultimate symbol and reality of sacrifice.
Here is one who “fell in the cause of the free” – a greater freedom than the freedoms for which soldiers of this world have fought. His sacrifice was for our ultimate freedom, from sin, and for peace with God.
Here is one who was also the best and the fairest: the Son of God, who died for the unworthy. He who knew no sin became sin for us, says Scripture. He did it willingly for the joy that was set before Him. He endured the cross; He prayed, “Not my will but yours be done” before His death, even as He contemplated the magnitude of it, and He followed through, right to the end – right up until those words passed His lips: “It is finished.”
He died the death that we deserve to die. He sacrificed Himself so that we might have more than freedom: so that we might have the life that we did not deserve to have, which is eternal.
And again, just as in that poem, though we mourn because of the need for that death and the cost of it, we rejoice because of what that death has won.
I do encourage you to mark Anzac Day. Honour the sacrifice of those who gave themselves on behalf of others, because that is a noble thing; a remarkable thing.
But as you contemplate a nation that has stopped to remember those heroes and to honour them, ask yourself, have I stopped to remember the Lord Jesus Christ and honour Him accordingly for the greatest sacrifice of all?
Here is some alternative ‘battle poetry’, this time from Henry Champney:
Truly God, yet become truly human,
Lower than angels, to die in our place.
How did you humble yourself to be taken,
Led by your creatures and nailed to the cross?
Hated of men, and of God too forsaken.
Shunning not darkness, the curse and the loss.
How have you triumphed, and triumphed with glory,
Battled death’s forces, rolled back every wave!
Can we refrain then from telling the story,
How you were victor over death and the grave?
Of course, the answer is no! I can’t refrain from telling the story – that’s why I talk about this so often on The Truth of It.
There is an ultimate sacrifice that is all perfect, all good, not with mixed motives, absolutely pure, in all the ways idealised in that poem. Perhaps the first Anzacs tried in some imperfect way to emulate it. I’m sure a number of them would have had that in their minds.
But it still stands supreme, even in light of the great cost that the soldiers bore. It still stands supreme as the greatest sacrifice of all.