Monday, May 27, 2024

Memorial Day


It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead (2 Maccabees 12:46).

Last week, while we were on retreat in New Jersey, my community took an evening (as is customary on such occasions) to remember and mourn, to celebrate and give thanks, for those who have gone before us. As people of faith, it is our joy to commend them to the mercy of God. As brothers-in-community who remember and miss them, it is our duty recall their lives with profound gratitude.

That, of course, is what we as a nation ostensibly do each year on Memorial Day, a day devoted to memory and gratitude for all who honorably served our country in life – especially those whose lives were tragically cut short by the perils unleashed by war. We have done this as a nation since the aftermath of the Civil War, a fratricidal conflict of apocalyptic proportions, which in many ways foreshadowed the catastrophic character of modern warfare which we would experience especially tragically in the 20th century and which parts of our world are experiencing even now in Ukraine, Israel, and elsewhere.

I said “ostensibly,” because like so many civic observances, the “Memorial” in Memorial Day has atrophied along with so much of our national and communal life. (The loss of Memorial Day as an occasion for civic education and its turning into a day "for family picnics or to buy a new mattress on sale" is alluded to in an important recent book, The Civic Bargain: How Democracy Survives, which I will be writing more about later this week.)

Not only have the dead been forgotten by many, but many of us have lost touch even with the living, as our once characteristically American associational impulses have withered, and contemporary Americans seem more and more to have turned in upon themselves.

What was once a nation of joiners has become a nation of loners. What was once “a nation with the soul of a church” has become a nation of souls lost in the market. We seem rather lost this Memorial Day, a nation now more divided than at any time since the Civil War.

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day, highlighting the practice of visiting veterans' graves on this day. When I was a pastor in Tennessee, we used to celebrate Mass outdoors at the parish cemetery on Memorial Day, decorating the graves of all those buried there with our grateful prayers. It is a good and worthwhile thing to visit a cemetery on Memorial Day. Even more, this is a day to renew our civic sense of mutual commitment to one another - the living - who are our fellow citizens in this treasured but troubled land of ours.

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