(Arlington National Cemetery)
First of all, I would like to greet you all a happy and meaningful memorial weekend. And tomorrow most especially, a happy and meaningful Memorial Day. Not being native of this great country, here only as transient (aren’t we all transient though?) it comes necessary for me to seek to know what the holidays, celebrations and traditions are about. I hope it would not be redundant for me to share what I have found out regarding the celebrated Memorial Day.*
I learned that Memorial Day marks the start of the summer vacation season, (and Labor Day its end). It is hence the day many begin prepping and putting to work their grills with hotdogs and burgers and steaks. It has also become a long weekend increasingly devoted to shopping, family gatherings, fireworks, trips to the beach, and national media events.
Over and above these, of course, I learned that this is a hallowed day. Now a federal holiday observed on the last Monday of May, it was formerly celebrated every 30th of May, honoring Union and Confederate soldiers following the American Civil War. It was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery, hence its old name, “Decoration Day”. After the First World War, the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war. Today, it commemorates all men and women who died in military service to the United States. What began as a ritual of remembrance and reconciliation after the civil war, by the early 20th century, Memorial Day became an occasion for more general expressions of memory, as many people visited the graves of their deceased relatives, whether they had served in the military or not.
It is for me striking to note that this holiday is not just born of historical nostalgia, but that this holiday is hallowed (made singular, exceptional and yes, holy) by the memory of those who have lived and died in military service of the country, and by extension, all who have lived and died in service of the country. I find it striking to note that the remembrance is not of war, of triumphs over enemies, or of military strength and might, but a remembrance of valor, of bravery, of sacrifice. What is remembered is the sacrifice of men and women who loved and gave their life in service. I find it also striking that for many, this holiday, I know not only because it is a long weekend, has become an occasion for family reunions and homecoming. The remembrance of the dead becomes a celebration of life. The remembrance of sacrifice becomes a celebration of relationships which gives meaning to sacrifice. The remembrance of the loss of life of those who have died becomes a celebration of the gifts we have and enjoy now, so hardly earned through their sacrifice. And although not many of us had known, much less seen and interacted with these men and women in the flesh, we know we are one with them in our common values and aspirations. The reality of their absence becomes a celebration of presence. The nobility of men and women in the past makes us trust the goodness of men and women in the present.
There is indeed something powerful in remembering, in memory. Of course, some would be selective of memory, trying to obliterate those that are hurtful, and painful. But memory and keeping memory heals, renews, restores, unites, challenges, inspires. Memory, I would like to believe is a gift from God. What we do in the Mass is a memorial of the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. And in our remembrance, we do not simply wax nostalgic of his sacrifice. Rather we become one family of God as we remember. We are called to be in solidarity with one another as we celebrate, to be in solidarity with all else in the world who celebrate this memorial of Jesus, to be in solidarity with all for whom Jesus lived, suffered, died and rose again. And further, as wonderfully ritualized in the order of the Mass, when after recalling the Institution Narrative in the Consecration where and when the bread and wine become Body and Blood of Jesus, we are called to profess the mystery of faith, to proclaim the mystery we celebrate.
St. Peter in the Second Reading (1 Pet 3:15-18) reminds us of the character of this profession of faith that we are to make - “Sanctify Christ as the Lord of your hearts.” Christ suffered for us to lead us to God, to put death to the flesh and lead us to life in the Spirit. Because of this, we have hope. Therefor be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks for a reason for our hope (need to have to confidence to speak of our faith, ergo, the need to study our faith). But do so of course, not with arrogance, but with gentleness and reverence (humility and charity). We will encounter opposition, so we are called to keep our conscience clear so that when we are maligned, those who defame our good conduct themselves may be put to shame. Suffer patiently. It is better to suffer doing good if that be the will of God than doing evil (which is often more comfortable and accepted, and tolerated, and has become the statistical norm.)
In the Gospel (Jn 14:15-21), as Jesus was nearing his suffering and death, he tells his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” In effect he was telling them, and us too, as he was about to leave, “when you remember me, remember me in obedience. To remember me is to keep my commandments.” The commandment of Jesus of course is, “Love one another as I have loved you. Love with a love that is willing to lay down your life for the beloved.” In love, Jesus is present – in love that is not merely affection, but love that is committed and obedient to God, love that is based on the truth of God, and keeps the truth – the truth that only in God can we have true life, true peace, the truth that only love that sacrifices and desires the true good of the other can bring true joy, true fulfillment, the truth that I am fulfilled only when I do not fulfill myself but when I seek the good of the other, the beloved. That is why we do not celebrate selfishness and arrogant self-preservation, or do we? No, we rather celebrate selflessness, for what is noble is bravery in sacrifice.
We often long for the nobility of the past, we long for heroic men and women to lead and guide us. We long for the prosperous and peaceful past and sometimes, looking at our present situation, realizing the dire state we are and could be in, we are tempted to despair and lose hope. Jesus in the Gospel tells us as he assured his disciples, we are not alone. He has not left us orphans. We are never forgotten by God. We say we remember the sacrifice of Jesus, but more than we can remember, God remembers. We are perpetually in God’s memory. Jesus asked the Father to send the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit is with us. And with the Spirit, Jesus is with us, the Father is with us. This assurance calls us to a renewed hope for the future, and a strengthened vitality for the present.
This weekend, as we remember the men and women who lived and died in service of the country, let us remember too that our collective remembrance is a challenge and inspiration to ourselves be of service. In these difficult times, the temptation is to save ourselves. That will never work. As they say, we are all in this together. And as we are reminded of the faithful presence of the Holy Spirit in us and in the Church, let us be mindful of the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of the love, the power to take on the challenge of the memory of our faith – to love Jesus by obeying his commandment, to make him truly Lord of our hearts, our relationships, yes, of our country, and of all created reality.
*Memorial Day facts and meaning had been drawn from internet articles.