According to many, today is the beginning of the summer season. It marks the time when many people break out white shoes, begin grilling in earnest, and generally celebrate the changing seasons. For many people, the most significant thing about this weekend is that they get an extra day off.
That isn’t the point of Memorial Day. The holiday was originally invented as Decoration Day, a day to honor the many dead of the American Civil War by decorating their graves. After the devastation of Work War I, it was renamed Memorial Day and was shifted to honoring all American dead from all wars.
This is the point in Memorial Day. The point is honoring the sacrifice of those who died in the service of the country. Thus, “happy Memorial Day” is something that should not be said.
In many churches, the Sunday before Memorial Day is a time where churches publicly honor those who have served. Often they restructure their services toward patriotic themes and some sort of recognition of the holiday. In general, I am not a fan of this approach because I think it lends itself to blending Christianity with our political loyalties and risks forming, or giving the impression of, a sort of civil religion. While I am not opposed to using a portion of the service in a prayer of gratitude, it would be hard to preach an expositional sermon that is truly patriotic in theme. Additionally, singing traditionally patriotic-themed songs in church tends to point people’s minds outward instead of upward. I think there are better ways we can be faithful citizens than incorporating such elements into our services.
However, it is another thing for Christians to participate in Memorial Day services. In reality, we have much to be thankful for. Especially as we remember the men and women who have served our country and died in that service. Although our nation is far from perfect, we do still have freedom to gather for worship together and, for the most part, to live out the convictions of our religious beliefs. Additionally, we have a degree of physical safety even today because men and women have been willing to die in service of their country.
In short, while some people go to Memorial Day services to honor the dead through a form of civil religion, it is entirely appropriate, in my mind, to go to a community gathering to express thanksgiving to the One True God for his faithfulness and provision through those who died in our nation’s service. This isn’t syncretism; it’s community. There will be parts of the ceremony that will be more or less consistent with my worldview, but that’s okay. This is not an expression of my faith in particular, but of community remembrance.
Additionally, this is an opportunity to illustrate to our children the cost of war. Armed conflict isn’t just a game or an adventure. When there is discussion of sending troops in to stabilize a region or as retribution, we should recognize the hellish cost of war and think many times over, counting the cost. War is hell. War is always the result of someone’s sin. War costs many people everything they have in this life and even those that return home safely often pay a steep price.
Solemnizing this day publicly teaches children something important, and can instill a sense of the deep tragedy of human sin.
My disappointment this year is that there isn't a ceremony at the local veteran's memorial, but we'll probably pass that way anyway to pay our respects.
I hope you have an enjoyable Memorial Day. May you be productive, get a nap, and take pleasure in having time with your family. However, I hope you also take some time to contemplate what exactly is being memorialized on this day. I also hope you will pray for the coming time when such days of memorial will be no more, when suffering is at an end.