touching the sacred

Apr 25, 2023


The language of the cross
may be illogical to those
who are not on the way to salvation,
but those of us who are on the way
see it as God’s power to save
1 Corinthians 1

Let me share a couple of my most significant Anzac Day memories.

A few years ago I was on Rēkohu Chatham Islands for what has become one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most sacred days, the ANZAC day of remembrance in gratitude for those who gave their lives, their health, their youth, their service that we may live in peace.

The art above was produced by one of the students at the local Te One school.

For the 600 people for whom the small island of Rēkohu is home, ANZAC day is a moment when heaven meets earth in the silence, the remembering, the prayer and the hope.

This is the atmosphere across New Zealand and Australia on this holy day.

Such days of remembrance provide a bridge between our world and eternity, between earth and heaven, between God and humanity. We sense this in the gathering in silence, the communal presence and the solemn ritual.

At the rising of the sun, as on Easter day, we remember that earthly life does not end in death.

Today Aotearoa and Australia take pause, a national day of remembrance, a break from work and study routines to remember.

Perhaps all our problems in life come from our forgetting to remember, from neglecting to take pause to ponder the essential.

This brings me to my second significant Anzac day memory.

When I was serving as Parish Priest of the Hurunui I stayed one night at the Hanmer Springs presbytery. I woke before dawn one morning to a very unusual noise, a sound I could not place until I looked out the window to see what seemed like thousands of people walking down Amuri Avenue to the cenotaph at the entrance to the town. I quickly threw on some clothes and went out to join them.

The strange thing was that this mass of people were not speaking but simply moving in silence. The sound that had woken me was that of a great throng of people moving together in silence.

Being a holiday weekend the town was full of people and it seemed that most of them were joining the gathering.

As we stood and waited for the service to begin there was more silence. No one spoke. People of all ages, waiting in silence.

The service was the same form used for a century. Silence. Prayers. Ritual litany: “At the rising of the sun….” and the people without script or prompting loudly responding “We will remember them.” A bugle played, again without introduction or explanation, the same tune used at every Anzac service, without improvisation and without accompaniment by other instruments. Then in a silent and ordered procession each person came forward to lay a poppy before a solemn conclusion after which people slowly departed, changed and moved by the gathering.

I’m thinking now of Pope Francis’ reflection on liturgy (June 2022) in which he wonders (quoting Romano Guardini) if people today have lost the ability to read symbol and to engage with liturgical action.

My answer, confirmed by the Hanmer Springs and Chatham Island Anzac Day celebrations, is a clear “no.” People of the twenty-first century society, often called secular, do have the ability to engage with liturgy whenever it touches life and death, and wherever this is celebrated well.

Thank you to the people of Hanmer and Chatham Islands for this education.

God of love and liberty,
we bring our thanks this day
for the peace and security we enjoy,
which was won for us
through the courage and devotion
of those who gave their lives
in time of war.
We pray that their labour and sacrifice
may not be in vain,
but that their spirit may live on in us
and in generations to come.

FFF IN THE CAFE... Send your name and the name of a cafe or bar to Scribble FFF on a table napkin, take a seat and wait.


Thursday 27 April 2023
10.30am at Zest Cafe Greeton 187 Chadwick Rd, Tauranga. (Directions) Frances

Monday 1 May 2023 (and every Monday)
10.00am at Moko in the Bush Inn Centre Christchurch (Directions) Trish

Thursday 4 May 2023
11.00am at Rata Cafe in Zealandia, 53 Waiapu Rd, Karori, Wellington. (Directions)  Catherine

Wednesday 10 May 2023 (and second Wednesday of every month)
10.30am at Zenders 44 Hopkins Road, Newstead, Hamilton (Directions). Christina


  1. What a beautiful reflection – art, words & prayer. After just coming from an ANZAC day Mass I endorse what you said John.

  2. Spiritual and body language – Often stronger than that of the voice

  3. Good morning, John. Thank you for another moving and thought provoking reflection. We value them so much. At this time of year I always wake with the words to The Ode rolling around my head, too. “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them…”. And its critical ending: “Lest we forget”, using that lovely old word now fading from use: “lest”. “In case we forget”? “So that we don’t forget”? No, “lest” does it better. We do these things so that we retain the memory of their great sacrifice. Of course, we also ” do these things in memory of Me”. The place of ceremony, of repeated and symbolic actions and words, retains its importance in our world that desperately gropes for meaning in the secular routines and rituals. I was saddened again this year that we in our parish spoke the great story of the washing of feet, and did not ourselves wash feet. Sang of the coming of the light, and did not ourselves take the light from the newly made Paschal candle and share it among ourselves. Heard the words about the blending of the light and the holy water, and did not see the Paschal flame burning from the waters of baptism. Heard the sung responses to the priest’s parts of the Exsultet, but did not hear the priest sing the phrases provoking those responses. Heard singing of incense taking the holy prayers up to heaven, but did not catch the waft of spice lifting our own prayers. Heard edited “highlights” of the arc of the greatest tale of humankind, but heard only three of the nine prescribed readings, prayers and psalms. Our priest and our Parish Family are holy and warm and good people. But the editing of our liturgy and the deletion of much of the great symbols has impoverished our experience. There is a place for great silence and stark simplicity in our liturgy, to be sure. And no place for glorious ritual devoid of true devotion. But the faint “post-Vigil let down” I and others felt this year, despite our warm and holy priest and our holy parish and our holy music, is, I think, linked to the paring back of our liturgy and the removal of the great symbols and liturgical elements that are rich and rounded and redolent with meaning beyond their pure performance. Lest we forget.

  4. Wonderful thoughts Nicholas & John. . How can forgetting to remember happen unless we recognise the essence of time. Time is greater than space says Francis. So why are so many of us reducing precious time to soundbytes, to shortened forms, to one pages or worse? Not recognising the richness that is being cut in the interests of time! Time for what we must ask. Time for who? Thanks for the wake up call.


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