Ten years of war and steadily mounting losses have pushed Remembrance Day to the fore in Australian media and public awareness, perhaps this year more than for many decades. Our slightly older tradition of Anzac Day is unchallenged by this, its rites and revelry well established on the calendar, civil and religious. Yet neither observance sprang fully formed into being.
November 11 was a cause of tension back in 1919, when the Whitehall Cenotaph – originally built of wood for a Victory March in July that year – became the focus of mourning on the first anniversary of the World War I Armistice, drawing attention away from the more obviously religious Westminster Abbey.
Over the years, Armistice Day became Remembrance Day to embrace the fallen of all wars, and the Church of England developed a parallel tradition of Remembrance Sunday, defined by the Royal British Legion as the second Sunday of November, being this year November 13.
Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, the main ecumenical group, publishes liturgy for it, as do the Church of England and Church of Scotland. In Australia, the equivalent liturgies and lectionary readings make provision for Anzac Day, and there are everyday prayers for the police and armed services. But there seems to be a gap where Remembrance Day and Remembrance Sunday are concerned.
We might observe, as Wilfred Owen: “What passing bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns.” And yet the standard lectionary readings for this Sunday have a curious relevance for Remembrance. The Old Testament readings, the story of Deborah and Barak and the triumphal song that follows, are probably the earliest parts of the Bible.
Deborah, a woman in authority, empowers the military leader Barak to fight, but says only a woman may strike the fatal blow against the enemy general Sisera. In the legend, Sisera is lured into hiding in the tent of Jael, a woman who drives a tent peg through his temple.
In contemporary Australia, a female prime minister maintains the campaign in Afghanistan, and instructs her generals to admit women to direct combat roles.
As former chief of army Peter Leahy wrote recently in The Australian newspaper, it’s a change based on modern reality: a terrorist doesn’t discriminate as to gender, and the concept of a front line is out dated in an era of “war among the population”.
“Artificial distinctions that Australia might impose on where women can fight have no meaning to insurgents, terrorists and non-state actors. We have a responsibility to prepare all of our soldiers for the full rigour of battle,” he wrote.
These are modern rules for modern reality, yet the ancient scripture somehow seems to anticipate the new order; maybe it’s hard-wired in human nature. The epistle, taken from St Paul’s earliest letter 1 Thessalonians – also the earliest part of the New Testament – uses the metaphor of military readiness to warn Christians to be vigilant for the second coming.
“Let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet,” he writes. It’s an apt metaphor because military life demands the most complete commitment of any secular calling – up to and including death.
A soldier doesn’t seek death but strives to do the task assigned, looking up to authority – as does the author of Psalm 123 who proclaims, “I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven” – and training hard to achieve the best results.
Sunday’s Gospel, Matthew 25.14-30 – also known as the parable of the talents – teaches us to get the best out of what life brings, not to bury our potential in complacency. The servant who invests his master’s money well is rewarded, while the one who hides it fearfully in a hole in the ground is thrown outside into darkness.
On a purely practical reading we can connect that with the Song of Deborah. By including women fully in all aspects of life – from the military to ministry – we make the most of the talents available for the benefit of all.
But the parable may also be read as teaching us to value Jesus’ gift of the Spirit; a gift passed on to us through his death and exaltation. With that supreme sacrifice to inform us, Christians may better come to terms with more recent sacrifices, and hold all such self-giving in the highest respect.