Homilies,  Occasional

Anzac Day – 25 April 2022

The conclusion to the Ode we recite on this day each year has become etched in our minds: “Lest we forget.” The problem is, of course, that we do forget, and that we forget all too easily. The horror of war, its senseless brutality, and its needless destruction are never too far from eruption. The criminal tragedy of Ukraine is played out daily before us. However, let us not forget those other theatres of violence – Afghanistan, Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria – to name just several. And in each situation, we are left with the hauntingly relentless question of “Why?” Why does it have to be this way? Why are otherwise innocent people caught up in such a massive scale in the megalomania of individuals and vested interests of power? Why is human life considered so expendable as the price of ruthless dreams of domination?

Yes, we forget. We are lulled into a false sense of security and complacency all too easily. Perhaps the historical anomaly of nearly seventy years of undiminished economic growth has contributed to this.  However, as the Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, murdered in Moscow some 15 years ago, wrote in her book Putin’s Russia,“There is a part of every society that wants nothing more than to be lulled into sleep.”[1] It was a striking statement about how there is a part of us which simply does not want to know too much. It is sad but true observation that we cannot bear too much reality. We seek to shield ourselves from reality, not to take too close an interest in things, or simply overlay complex situations with our own prejudices and biases. The problems that swirl around us – from the threat of global economic instability, the questions surrounding climate change, the plight of those seeking asylum on our shores, the level of homelessness in our cities – can be all too complex, all too difficult, all too vexatious and it is easier for us to close off to them. Then, we become surprised at events, such as Washington DC 6 January 2021, which demonstrate how fragile democratic freedom has become.

The outcome of living a life that is asleep, whether as persons or as societies, is that we close our eyes and our ears and hope in our imagination that things might be otherwise than they actually are. Think of that remarkable stanza in the poem, “The Age of Anxiety” (1948) by W. H. Auden:

We would rather be ruined than changed; We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment; And let our illusions die. 

As the social researcher, Hugh Mackay points out there is a great danger, however, when we allow ourselves to be lulled into this kind of social inertia and passivity – particularly as societies.[2] Then we fall to the temptation as citizens “to leave politics just to politicians.” Sadly, the memory of 1933 Germany particularly comes to mind, when, according to the Nobel Prize winning writer Gunter Grass, “there were not enough citizens.”[3] It is far more comfortable for us to be observers rather than citizens, to fiddle while Rome burns as the ancient saying would have it. It is easier for us to forget.

Indeed, a good part of our life is lived in forgetfulness. We get caught up in the demands of the moment and we lose sight of our purpose and passion. Nonetheless, there intrudes into our forgetfulness moments of memory. These are the moments that punctuate our preoccupations. They remind us of the ‘something more’ in life. They come outside of our control. However, our attention to them is in our control. Do we attend to them long enough for them to stir us from our complacency and to goad us into awareness? 

ANZAC Day is critically important because it is a moment of memory that pierces our ordinary forgetfulness. For a brief day, we are reminded of the sacrifice of others to ensure the society we now enjoy, and the price that has been paid for the lifestyle we enjoy, and that is denied to so many of our brothers and sisters in the world. We honour their sacrifice, and it is right for us to do so. However, even more significantly it is important for us to remember what their sacrifice ensured. To remember them is to remember why they died. To remember why they died is to think again about our own commitment to what we enjoy, and how fragile it can become through forgetfulness. It reminds us not to take for granted what we have, but to commit ourselves more consciously to preserve and protect the society we have been given by the sacrifice of our forbears. 

It is the Spirit who comes into our life to break open the entombment created by our passivity, our inertia, our fear, our paralysis. The Spirit touches the parts of us which are asleep and transforms them into a renewed sense of responsibility. The Spirit touches our eye and touches our ear that we might see and hear. This is what the German Catholic theologian, Metz terms “the mysticism of opened eyes.” As he wrote:

With all respect for Eastern mysticism and spirituality let me stress . . . In the end Jesus did not teach an ascending mysticism of closed eyes, but rather a God- mysticism with an increased readiness for perceiving, a mysticism of open eyes, which sees more and not less. It is a mysticism that especially makes visible all invisible and inconvenient suffering, and – convenient or not – pays attention to it and takes responsibility for it, for the sake of a God who is a friend to human beings.[4]

This ANZAC, let us pray that the spell of our passivity, the torpor of our inertia, the pall of our forgetfulness may be ripped away. Let this moment of memory stir us from our complacency and commit us again with creativity and courage not to go through life asleep but with both dismay and determination that keeps us awake.

Lest we forget.

[1] Cited in James Button, “A tough crusader falls,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 14-15 October 2006, 27.

[2] Hugh Mackay, “Sleepers awoke from slumber of indifference,” Sydney Morning Herald, (Tuesday 27 November 2007), 15.

[3] Gunter Grass cited in Richard Eckersley, “As good as it gets,” in Spectrum, Sydney Morning Herald Weekend Edition, (31 January – 1 February, 2004), 4. See also Richard Eckersley, Well and Good: How We Feel and Why it Matters, (Sydney: Text, 2004).

[4] Metz, A Passion for God, 163. Metz is clear that he is not advocating a partisan politics: “The task of the Church is not a systematic social doctrine, but a social criticism. . . [Thus] the Church, defined as social-critical institution, does not become a political ideology. No political party can have this criticism as its sole plank. Moreover, no political party can embrace in its political activity the whole scope of the Church’s social criticism which covers the whole of history under God’s eschatological proviso, otherwise it would drift into either romanticism or totalitarianism.” Metz, “The Church’s Social Function in the Light of a ‘Political Theology,” 17-18. [Italics in the original]. 

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