At the going down of the sun
and in the morning
we will remember them.
On ANZAC Day last year, my two eldest sons and I woke early, well before dawn. We drove in the dark along almost deserted suburban roads to join thousands of fellow citizens in an “ANZAC Ceremony of Remembrance” in the middle of Sydney - just metres from the place where, during the First World War, the main army recruiting office stood.
It was a passive act. We stood on the rim of the fountain in Martin Place, Sydney, and watched the crowd as it gathered. At 0430 hours the brass band struck up “Abide with me,” and the crowd tried to sing along.
There was a formal prayer by a defence force chaplain, a brief address by Rear Admiral Raydon Gates, and another mournful hymn. The NSW Governor recited the Dedication, a wreath was laid on the Cenotaph, and the Last Post shattered the silence with its clear and distinctive notes.
A few more formalities, another traditional hymn, the benediction, and then we were singing “Advance Australia Fair,” which everyone seemed to know and sang with gusto. Dawn was breaking across the tall buildings of the CBD as the official party, uniformed soldiers, and civilians dispersed. On a building high above us, now catching the sun’s golden rays, an Australian flag flew.
We do it every year. We’ll be there again today. For us it’s not about sampling the national culture. It’s not about glorifying war. It’s not about honouring members of our own family or fulfilling a sense of duty.
It’s mostly about sharing a solemn public occasion with countless strangers, and appreciating the complexity and contradictions of contemporary Australia. Nowhere else do thousands of people quietly congregate in pre-dawn darkness to participate in such a serious event. Nowhere else does one observe such an apparently seamless mix of secular and religious culture. And no other national pastime conveys such rich and concrete human values.
If ANZAC Day means anything, it is that it brings an awareness of the painful reality and the terrible tragedy of history for a culture steeped in the shallow pleasures of so-called reality TV and sitcoms. ANZAC Day opens a space for quiet reflection on the stupid waste and unbearable loss that wars deliver. It provides a moment to appreciate the high cost of peace.
ANZAC Day tells a story that is bigger than us all, and it helps us begin to value the liberty we possess as Australians. What we do with the fruit of that hard-won liberty - what we create from it, how we share it, to whom we sell it, and for what reward - is for future generations to judge.
The ANZAC tradition as we now know it is alive and well. I have no doubt that it will endure in Australian cities and towns for many years. But if the ANZAC Day ceremony is reduced to nothing more than a sentimental ritual, or a mark of civic duty, it will have lost both its soul and its power to change our future.
It’s whether an ANZAC Day ceremony can shape us into better persons, and what we do for one another in the year that follows, that really counts.
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