This Just In: Memorial Day - A Day of Remembrance
By William M. Cwirla
Memorial Day is a civic holiday celebrated on the last Monday in the month of May. This year it falls on May 31. It commemorates the men and women of the armed forces who died in war defending our nation. The holiday goes back to the end of the Civil War when it was called Decoration Day, referring to the practice of decorating the graves of fallen soldiers. After World War I, the name was changed to Memorial Day and the remembrance was expanded to include all wars. The original date was May 30, but an act of Congress in 1971 changed it to the last Monday of May in order to create a three-day holiday weekend.
Memorial Day is distinct from Veterans Day, November 11, and Armed Forces Day, the third Saturday in May. Armed Forces Day honors those who are actively serving. Veterans Day recognizes those who have served in the past. Memorial Day remembers those who died in battle.
As a civic holiday, Memorial Day is an event of the political or societal order in God’s temporal kingdom. It is not a Church holy day, although the Church certainly prays for those who defend our nation and honors the vocation of soldier as part of God’s First Article fatherly care. “He defends me against all danger, guards and protects me from all evil” (Small Catechism).
Memorial Day is a stark and solemn reminder that temporal peace and freedom come at the tip of the sword and the shedding of blood. “He who lives by the sword also dies by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Sin has disturbed the peace of God’s order and sets nation against nation and people against people. War is, at best, a temporary solution to a temporal kingdom problem. It must never be glamorized or glorified. General Dwight D. Eisenhower said it best: “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity." War may be necessary at times, but it represents the sinful fall of our humanity.
There is a danger in Memorial Day, found in the notion that those who died for country have atoned for their sins and have earned the assurance of eternal life as a reward. Well-intentioned Memorial Day speeches and sermons sometimes veer in that direction. No blood can save eternally except the blood of Jesus Christ that cleanses us from all sin. He alone fought the battle against sin and death, and His blood alone brings us eternal peace and freedom. Having said that, there is a place for Memorial Day in our lives as Christian citizens. We can thank God in prayer for those who gave their lives in battle defending our country so that we can live peace and freedom. And we can pledge to use our freedom to serve others in love and to be agents of peace in the world. Memorial Day should be a day of reflection and prayer as we consider the cost of our battles and the depths of sin that creates war in the first place.
To this end, I offer this Memorial Day prayer:
Gracious God, our heavenly Father, Your Son is King and Lord of all the nations and their Savior. Sin has set nation against nation, and You have given us soldiers to stand in battle to fight and defend us. We thank you for their lives and for the blood that was shed on the battlefield to preserve peace and liberty. Teach us to use this liberty for service in acts of mercy and love to others. By the blood of your Son, Jesus Christ, bring healing to the nations, and by His coming in glory, turn our swords into plowshares and bring an end to our wars; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Rev. William M. Cwirla is the pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hacienda Heights, California. He is also a president emeritus of Higher Things.
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