Anzac Day is perhaps the most ‘holy’ day of the year in modern secular Australia.
We get up early to remember. We make pilgrimages—some even to the distant shores of Gallipoli. We hear speeches about sacrifice. ‘No-one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (John 15:13) is ripped out of context to become a secular truth, lauding the value of mateship and the ultimate sacrifice. Prayers are prayed, some of which have an explicit Christian content. If we are lucky, we might hear a sermon that links this sacrifice to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Paul did not condemn them for their Christless worship but instead used their religiosity to invite them to come to know the one whom God sent, who suffered and died and then rose from the dead.
Two events touched Australia deeply at the end of last year. The first was the tragic and untimely death of cricketer Phil Hughes in late November. We grieved together. Many spoke of prayer, especially while Hughes lay in a coma in hospital. In the weeks that followed, players reaching milestones raised their bats heavenwards, in a salute to their fallen colleague who was now ‘up there’. The atheists fell silent; no letters to the editor declared that all this was absurd.
Then in mid-December a mad lone terrorist took hostages in central Sydney, in the service of his god Allah, or so he claimed. Two of his victims died when police ended the siege. Again, we grieved. Worse things happen most weeks in other parts of the world, but this was close to home. Many claimed to be praying for the hostages and then for those who grieved over the loss of loved ones. Again, the militant atheists were silent. Again people pulled together, and for a while the nation seemed united.
None of this should be sneered at. I also grieved. I am also amazed at those who willingly served overseas one hundred years ago and since, often in conditions too horrible for me to contemplate. But we should also ask, ‘What does this mean?’ What is this spiritual longing that finds expression on Anzac Day and at times of national tragedy? Why do so many otherwise secular people seem to need the language of faith to express how they feel?
For some, perhaps, this is the lingering trace of a Christian heritage. Like a distant memory that comes to mind when something triggers it. For others it is simply a religiosity that has no content. A vague hope that the dead ‘have gone to a better place’, that maybe there is some sort of god out there—somewhere. It is something they consider in times of crisis or deep significance, but which otherwise has no importance in their everyday lives.
It is important that we distinguish between a Christless religiosity and Christian faith. They are not the same. All religions are not same either—in spite of what we hear so often today. The fact that someone believes something and is a generally decent human being does not mean that they have a ticket to heaven.
How do we bring Jesus to Anzac Day? First, I think we need to acknowledge those who are already doing so, and in fact have always done so. Our Australian defence forces have a deep Christian tradition that finds expression in what our chaplains and others do every day of the year. We thank God for the witness of Christian people in the military.
But beyond that there is another question: How do we bring Jesus to the general, non-specific religiosity that finds expression from time to time in our culture? That question brings us very close to the first-century world of Jesus and the apostles.
St Paul found himself in just this situation when he visited Athens. In Acts 17 we read that Paul was deeply distressed by the idolatry of the Athenians. He noticed that there was an altar dedicated ‘To an unknown god’. Taking this general religiosity as his starting point, he told them that he was going to make known to them the true God whom they were worshipping in an anonymous sort of way. He tapped into their natural desire to believe in something, in order to bring Jesus to them.
We don’t have the space here to unpack in any detail how Paul did this. I just want to make the point that Paul did not condemn them for their Christless worship, but instead used their religiosity to invite them to come to know the one whom God sent, who suffered and died and then rose from the dead.
Too often today Christians are known for their judgementalism, not their love, and for the hardness of their hearts, not their compassion. In Acts 17 Paul does speak of a judgement day and clearly says that people will be held to account, but he does so in a way that offers hope and he is respectful of the beliefs of his audience. He leaves the way open for further conversation. He doesn’t immediately say all that there is to be said, but finishes with the hint of the resurrection.
Let’s bring Jesus to our world as the one who makes sense of our desire to pray and our wish that there might be a God and a better place for those who die.
Pastor Steen Olsen serves as the SA/NT Director for Mission and as a member of the LCA Board for Local Mission.