Every April, Australians celebrate two important holidays—ANZAC and Easter. A moment’s reflection reveals several striking similarities between these two memorial occasions.
On ANZAC Day, we remember events that happened long ago—just over one century ago. We think of Australian soldiers who died in the Great War (World War I) and in subsequent wars.
On Good Friday, the first day of Easter, we also remember an event that happened long ago—almost twenty centuries ago. We call to mind the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ.
On ANZAC Day, local communities conduct simple ceremonies in remembrance of the deaths of our soldiers. We gather to sing the National Anthem and offer prayers of thanksgiving to God. We gather to hear anecdotes and speeches about the brave and the fallen. We gather to lay wreaths at stone monuments and read names from brass plaques.
On Good Friday, Christian communities also conduct simple ceremonies in remembrance of the death of Jesus. We gather to read Scripture, offer prayers, sing hymns and hear sermons about Jesus and his crucifixion. We gather (if not on Good Friday, then on Easter Sunday) at the Lord’s Table to eat bread, representing his broken body, and drink wine, representing his shed blood. Like the plaques and monuments, these emblems are set before us “lest we forget”.
On ANZAC Day, we remember how our soldiers laid down their lives for others. They fought and died for the welfare of their families and mates. They also fought for millions of fellow Australians, who, although not personally known to them, shared with them a common heritage and common convictions and aspirations.
On Good Friday, we remember how the Lord Jesus laid down his life for others, too. He sacrificed himself for the welfare of people he knew and loved, as he himself points out in his poignant farewell conversation with his disciples: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends … I call you not servants … but I have called you friends” (John 15:13-15).
On ANZAC Day, we recall how our soldiers fought against terrible tyranny: the tyranny of Germany (whose unprovoked invasion and brutalisation of neutral Belgium at the outset of the Great War put beyond doubt its monstrous nature and intentions) and the tyranny of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, now known as Turkey (who conducted the first genocide of the 20thCentury, slaughtering more than one million Armenian Christians even as our soldiers fought at Gallipoli).
On Good Friday we recall how the Lord Jesus also fought against dreadful tyranny: the tyranny of Satan (who tempted the first humans to join his rebellion against God, thereby ruining the future of the entire human race), the tyranny of sin (which involves all the habitual forms of corruption, perversion and deceit that we see in our hearts and our world today) and the tyranny of death (which entered human experience because of sin and has enslaved human beings with dread ever since).
These are some of the similarities between the two remembrance days. But there are also several important differences.
On ANZAC Day, we remember men who died and are still dead. We honour dead men. The bones of the ANZCs are still in the ground in Gallipoli, many of them now identified and suitably acknowledged with grave-stones. Indeed, many battle-fields of the First and Second World Wars still contain the remains of the dear Australian dead and are places of pilgrimage for those who wish to remember them.
On Good Friday, however, we remember a Man who died and came back to life. We honour a living Man. Jesus did not remain in the grip of death but rose triumphantly from the grave and now is alive forevermore. Christians at Easter solemnly commemorate Jesus’ death, certainly. But more than this, we celebrate his resurrection and anticipate his return.
On ANZAC Day, there is no communion with the fallen soldiers. Yes, there is sometimes talk of feeling close to the dead and even of feeling the presence of the dead. But this is just noble emotion and wishful thinking. Death has separated the soldiers from us. They are absent.
On Good Friday, however, there is communion with the risen Lord Jesus. Death could not and did not hold him in the grave and so it cannot and will not keep him from us. By the power of his Spirit, he is present in and among those who love him. He is in our midst. We may not always feel his presence, but we believe his post-resurrection promise that he will be with us to the end of the age, and never leave us or forsake us.
As already mentioned, on ANZAC Day we remember how our soldiers laid down their lives for their friends; and on Good Friday we remember that Jesus did the same.
However, Jesus did not die for his friends only. The extraordinary thing, the thing that makes him so different from our noble soldiers, is that he died for his enemies, too. While we were still sinners, hostile in mind and doing evil deeds, Jesus died for us. He died for us not because we were his friends but in order to make us his friends.
In a similar vein, the scope of our soldiers’ and our Saviour’s death is quite different. While the ANZAC soldiers died for Australia, Jesus died for the world. He died for the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire as well as the nominal and true Christians of the British Empire. He died for the brutalising Germans as well as the brutalised Belgians. He died for the Australian soldiers at Gallipoli as well as the Austrian soldiers at Belgrade.
There is another significant difference between ANZAC and Easter. Although many soldiers lost their lives, none of them set out to die. They all hoped to survive. They quite properly intended to win the war by killing the enemy. They knew and accepted that their military service could result in their death, but they hoped that it wouldn’t. They hoped to live through the war and to return home in the end. In this sense, they were entirely unwilling to die, and only did so in spite of their deepest desires and strongest efforts. Death was something they intended for their enemies, not themselves.
This was not the case with Jesus. He intentionally set out to sacrifice his life. His death was not accidental but deliberate. He came not to kill his enemies but to be killed by and for them. His sacrificial death was not only necessary for victory over evil, it was the victory.
Finally, there is this difference: At best, the soldiers won us a partial and temporary freedom. This is not to belittle their achievement, but simply to be realistic about it.
The Lord Jesus, however, won us a full and permanent freedom. The victory he won on the Cross is irreversible and everlasting. He sets us free from the penalty and power of sin, now and forever.
Jesus Christ, God’s Son, came into the world to save sinners. On the first Good Friday, he died on the cross in our place, bearing our sins and suffering our punishment. In this way he made amends to God the Father for all the wrong that we have done, said and thought. That God accepted his sacrifice for us is demonstrated by the fact that God raised him from the dead on the first Easter Sunday.
Because of what happened at Easter, everyone who calls out in repentance and faith to Jesus will be saved from the slavery of Satan through sin and from the retribution of God for sin.
Thank God for the soldiers who died for us in the Great War, and in other wars. We rightly remember them and their sacrifice on ANZAC Day. But thank God even more for his Son who died for us in the Greatest War. By his death Jesus put an end to the war between us and God. We rightly remember him and his sacrifice on Good Friday.