The following is an edited version of a homily delivered by Fr Peter Steele in 2004 at Xavier College and included in A Local Habitation: Poems and Homilies (Newman College, 2010). It was reprinted in Kairos Catholic Journal, Volume 22, Issue 6, and was posted on the website of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne in April last year.
On the face of it, for Christians to be commemorating Anzac Day is a very strange thing. The day would have no meaning at all if it were not for war: and morally and spiritually war is always a great disaster. I know that there can be winners and losers in war, but the fact that people make wars or have wars is a dreadful sign of human failure, and a sign of the power of evil in the world. Wars presuppose at the very least that some people are expendable, and that is exactly the lie which Jesus Christ came to deny and to refute. Wars tend to legitimate hatred, not to speak of mass murder, and to foster them is simply the work of the Devil. To defend one’s country against a warring opponent is sometimes justified, but the situation can never be less than tragic.
I remember, when I was still at school, a couple of years from leaving, that a priest made the point on just this day that we should not sentimentalise the young Australian men who volunteered to go on the Gallipoli campaign. He pointed out that some were probably on the run from debts, or from unhappy relationships, or even from their own maturity; and surely he was right. At Gallipoli there must have been a ration of criminals and cowards, of fugitives and fools, since every human community includes some of these. But there were as well, quite certainly, brave and generous and very gifted people – British and New Zealand and Australian among others, on the one side, and Turkish on the other. I imagine that they killed and were killed at about equal rates.
The alternative to sentimentalising war, or to sentimentalising peace, is to think, and to speak of them, starkly. Anzac Day is a stark day, and Christianity is a stark religion; if there are to be things for us to celebrate on Anzac Day, especially as Christians, we had better have them on the table, now. And the essential thing I have to say in this Memorial Chapel, where so many of the dead are commemorated, and so many of the living have been celebrated in weddings, is that Jesus stands with us, clear eyed, when we name the victims of war, and when we contemplate with distress the makers of war.
First then: the one we call ‘Jesus Christ our Lord’ was, quite straightforwardly, a casualty of war. He died at the hands of an army of occupation, whose commander-in-chief sentenced him first to torture and then to death, and whose foot soldiers and relatively junior officers got the job done. If we were speaking mythologically, we would say that Mars, the god of war, put Jesus, the Lord of Peace, to death. Which would also be like saying that when he was tried and sentenced and tortured and executed, Mars was doing the same to the possibility of peace. The abolition of Jesus Christ was, from the point of view of Mars (also known as Satan), the abolition of peace, and thus the abolition of love.
The war of which Jesus was a casualty was the still unfinished war between the possibility of comprehensive human love and its impossibility. And if you think that this sounds like a war between love and death, you are quite right. The reason why the murder of Jesus was important was not only on account of who he was, but on account of what he meant. He had said that either you chose him or chose death. He meant it, and it was true; and one sprawling human company made its choice, a choice for death, and here we are.
But the place where we are is, surprisingly, the place of love and peace after all; since the death of Christ defied even the worst consequences of our human decisions, and the Resurrection, the ‘being-raised’, of Christ insisted that our worst and most perverse and most idiotic decisions could still be outbid, outplayed, by the most insightful and most committed of human beings, in whose body and soul God our Father flooded a human sterility with a divine vitality. Love outmanoeuvred death, after all.
This, above all, is what every Mass, every Remembering, every Thanksgiving, proclaims – often, it would seem, in the face of the evidence. When men like my father, who were involved in a war at the peril of their lives, and at the peril of their wives’ and children’s happiness, went to a Mass being said on top of ammunition boxes, they were pretty clear as to the war between love and death – they could see it dramatised in front of them. And in the same vein, when, as in the Gospel passage for today, our Lord asks his fragile friend and servant Peter whether he really loves him, this is not some kind of social flirtation: it is the question asked by a man who has died at the hands of Mars, asked of another man who had earlier caved in to the hands of Mars. Jesus’ question to Peter is not only, ‘do you love me?’ but ‘do you – really, seriously, as a grown-up and often scared person – believe in love enough to stake your life on it?’
That is not a question which has gone out of date, or can in fact ever go out of date. As I speak here, we all know the kind of answer which is, so often, given to that question. Anzac Day need not remind us only of healthy young men dying, quite close to the site of ancient Troy, most of a hundred years ago. Anzac Day can, and should, remind us of the battle between love and death which is everybody’s scenario, however placid their circumstances, and however benign their temperaments. Later this week, quite certainly, and in so many words, men and women will ask one another, in this country and in most others throughout the world, ‘do you love me?’ and much will hang on the truthfulness and the seriousness of the reply. All of them, and all of us, will need a lot of dexterous guidance from the Good Shepherd.
Anzac Day, in other words, is not only the most famous Australian secular festival, which it certainly is. It is a day, like Christmas Day and Easter Sunday, when we may be challenged to choose a certain lavishness in compassion and love, as against the acid pitilessness of death. The speechifying is all very well, and so is the patriotism, and so is the convivial drinking. But what really matters is the first step, the first choice, towards rejection of Mars the Devil, and so the first step, the first choice, for the Lord of Peace. Every Mass says that this is possible; but only you or I can say whether it will be our way to go.
Fr Peter Steele SJ is Professor Emeritus of English literature at Melbourne University and was Provincial Superior of the Jesuits in Australia from 1985 to 1990.