As a child, the day heralded the approach of summer and the end of school. It was a day where we had neighborhood picnics and went to a parade where I didn’t pay much attention to who was marching but who was throwing candy.
We also visited the cemetery, which felt ghastly as a child. We tiptoed between graves so as not to step on dead people.
Memorial Day is a purely American holiday. It began as Decoration Day and was first celebrated spontaneously after the Civil War to commemorate all the soldiers who died in the war. We had more casualties in that war than in any war America has fought and required the creation of our first national cemeteries.
Waterloo, New York is often credited with the first Decoration Day celebration, May 5, 1866. Businesses closed, and people were encouraged to decorate the graves of all those lost in battle during the Civil War. It was later moved to May 30 in 1868, not to celebrate any particular battle but the spirit of those who were willing to give their lives in a battle that often pitted brother against brother.
Now we remember all those who have fought and died for us in all the wars we’ve participated in. It doesn’t give glory to war, but it respects and honors those who sacrificed their lives to allow us freedom in this country that we often take for granted. We celebrate to remember, that we are where we are because of what others have done on our behalf.
It’s so easy to forget that our stories aren’t singular in nature, just about us. We have people who have invested in us for years, sacrificing for us, wanting more for us than they had for themselves. I remember the Viet Nam War, the first televised war for us, giving people at home a bird’s eye view of what war was like.
We didn’t like it. Protests happened around the country. I had friends opt to go to Canada to become conscientious objectors. When our troops came back, they were often vilified instead of honored for doing as they’d been asked. So many of them today still struggle with not only the terror of war but the shame they returned home to.
Jesus understood shame and sacrifice. He knew what it meant to be marginalized and misunderstood. It didn’t keep Him from doing what He’d come to do–die in our place to pay a price we can’t ever hope to pay. He didn’t deserve the treatment He received, but He did it out of love for us. To give us a chance to know real hope.
Recognizing the sacrifice of our men and women who have fought in wars so we could have a quality of life that provides chances to redraft our stories is an act of honoring them with gratitude and respect.
Remembering with respect should be a small compensation we give those who have sacrificed so much.
If we will do it.