Today is Memorial Day, when Americans take time to remember those who have given their lives in defense of their country. I am, in fact, not an American, but in my native Canada we have a similar commemoration called Remembrance Day, which falls on November 11th. Many other countries also mark similar days, because they understand the importance of honoring those who have sacrificed themselves for those whom they love. These days have retained a very solemn and serious character, unlike many other civic holidays which tend to become placeholders for late rising and outdoor food preparation. Instinctively, we know that we must not forget the heroic deeds of those who fought for us.
Memory is an ancient Biblical theme. Before their entry into the promised land, Moses instructed the Israelites to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, and might. They were to keep these words always before them and to drill them into their children (Deut 6:4-9). Moses further explained, “take heed lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (6:12). Unfortunately, time and time again, the people of the Old Covenant forgot the Law, despite the admonition to read and proclaim it regularly. In fact, the book of the Law passed entirely into obscurity before it was rediscovered by Josiah in the late 7th century B.C. (2 Kings 22-23).
The new covenant too is introduced with an admonition to remember:
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:19-20)
The ability to forget what ought to be remembered is a fault all too human. As a remedy, Scripture suggests frequent commemoration of the events in salvation history. This happens in a preeminent way at the Mass, in which the whole Christian people gather regularly to unite in prayer in memory of Jesus.
Human history is no less prone to obscurity. Memorial Day grew from a Christian society that knew both the danger of forgetting and the need to preserve the memories that matter the most. It is otherwise too easy to take for granted what we have received through the sacrifice of others. On days like today, we remember the heroic sacrifice of those who gave their lives for the country they loved.
Like Jesus, soldiers are willing to shed their own blood for those whom they love. In remembering their sacrifice, we cannot but recall the greatest of all sacrifices, and be spurred on to imitate the model of self-sacrifice ourselves. As Christians, we are called to witness to God’s love for us by our sacrifices in service to each other. This is difficult enough by itself, and all the more so if we forget to keep ever in mind the sacrifices of Christ and of all those who have given us a gift we cannot repay. Our memory matters.
Image: George Matthews Harding, American wounded making way to first aid station