Remembrance Day and the sacrifice of memory

This week Australia and many other nations celebrate a major civic ritual, Remembrance Day, which commemorates all who have died in war.

It was originally known as Armistice Day, for it marked the end of armed conflict in the Great War of 1914-1918. Armistice Day embodied the desire to commemorate not only the war dead, but also the end of widespread death and misery and the hope that such a war might never happen again.

War, as we know, did not cease. The day became known as Remembrance Day, allowing other wars to be recalled.

“Remembrance” permits a much wider variety of meanings than “armistice” once did. In Australia, especially as the ranks of the veterans of two world wars have been depleted by age and death, the remembrance of war and of the war dead has become sacred.

The words and actions of our Remembrance Day rituals have a mystical quality to them. Nowadays attempts to disrupt veterans’ parades, to speak during the minutes silence, or to interrupt the playing of The Last Post are viewed as sacrilege.

These rituals attempt to compensate for the sacrifice of those who served and died in wartime, paying a necessary honour to and acknowledgment of their service, whether willing or unwilling. Politicians, veterans’ associations, the defence forces, and bereaved families exhort the living to remember, lest memory fade. For if the service of the war dead is forgotten, it may have been in vain.

In Melbourne, sacred ritual reaches its zenith when light itself is controlled at the Shrine of Remembrance. At the eleventh hour, the sun’s rays alight precisely on the centre of the Stone of Remembrance in the Sanctuary at the heart of the Shrine, in a manner reminiscent of Aztec sun-temples or neolithic European stone circles.

The stone on which the light briefly rests is inscribed simply “Greater Love Hath No Man”. At the critical moment, the sunlight touches the word “Love”.

The quotation is from the Christian New Testament, using the early seventeenth-century translation of the King James Bible. (It’s not altogether clear whether “man” in the context of the Shrine is meant to be inclusive of both male and female.)

The pithy phrase comes from an era when widespread knowledge of the rest of the quotation could be assumed: “Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

This Christian text, removed from its biblical context and its reference to Jesus’ death, sets a framework for remembrance. Love leads to unconditional sacrifice of the self.

In continuing to observe Remembrance Day, we add reciprocity to this framework. We return our memory for their sacrificial love.

In the words and rituals of Remembrance Day we tell ourselves about ourselves. We attempt to hold up a mirror of memory, as crowds recite the familiar phrases: “We will remember them”, “lest we forget”. It seems impossible to say much more than this in the face of the grim nightmare of war and the terrible things that have had to be done in the name of national identity, the common good, and the defeat of tyranny.

Religious rituals usually involve a renewal of commitment, a transformative experience. The trouble with Remembrance Day is that we can all too easily avoid these ingredients.

In Christian contexts, remembrance is necessarily an act of hope; hope of resurrection. In Australia, we must ask, was the sacrifice of the war dead altogether futile? What ought we to affirm, and even share, in the lives we lead today as a result of the sacrifice of our forebears?

Remembrance should not be confined to an annual minute’s silence, but should lead to action to change the world for the better. What could we do individually, as a nation, as a world, to stop war and bloodshed from occurring again on such a scale?

Our Remembrance Day rituals reveal much about what many Australians believe. The memory of the war dead is arguably our most potent expression of national faith. The question is whether the small sacrifice of memory leads to hope and, through hope, to change.