Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Rector's Monday Message: May 28, 2012

Thoughts on Memorial Day
“It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country,” said the Roman poet Horace.  In the Latin original, the phrase went, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”  This Horatian phrase was on the lips of many young European men as they went off to fight the First World War.  The realities of trench warfare turned out to be quite different from the sweet and decorous battles they had imagined.
The great English poet of that war, Wilfred Owen, took Horace’s phrase and made it the ironic title of his anti-war poem, “Dulce et decorum est.”  The poem details the horrors of trench warfare and the indignities to which battlefield soldiers are exposed. It memorably ends with these lines, addressed to someone who seemingly still thinks that 20th century war is sweet and decorous:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Memorial Day, which we observe today, had its origins during the American Civil War, the first “modern” war, which was also notable for its horrific battlefield conditions.  Decoration Day, as the holiday was first known, began when women in the South and North decorated the graves of soldiers on the last weekend in May as a time of remembrance.  Over the years, Decoration Day turned into Memorial Day and became a national holiday.  It is the day on which we rightly remember all those who have given their lives in the service of their country.
When I was rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, I used to marvel at how old the graves were in our churchyard.  The oldest were graves contained veterans of a conflict that preceded the Revolution, the French and Indian War.  Over the course of our history, Americans have been involved in numerous wars:  the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican American War, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War, the two Iraq Wars, and now the longest conflict in American history, the War in Afghanistan.  Young American men and women have repeatedly gone off to serve their country, and they have done so often under horrifyingly inhumane conditions.  So on Memorial Day it is important not only to remember the sacrifice of those who gave their lives for their country.  It is also essential that we remember the sacrifice of those who have endured much even as they have survived the battlefield.
Many in our congregation have experienced war.  Many more have known and lost relatives and friends in warfare. Every one of us understands the tragedy of lives cut short in battle.  We also understand the tragedy of lives broken and altered by the stresses of the kind of warfare our contemporary soldiers must now endure.
Wilfred Owen died in battle just a week before the Armistice in 1918. His poems have stood as a reminder that, given the mechanized, hi tech efficiency with which we now can kill each other, modern warfare will be exponentially ever more grisly both to participate and behold.  Our notions of heroism must evolve with the evolution of warfare.  We should correspondingly praise and thank those who engage in military service on our behalf.
If Memorial Day means anything to us as followers of Jesus, we must see it as an occasion to renew our commitment to stand and work for peace, to help build a world in which the youth of our country will be able to live the fullness of their lives in the blessings of peace.  As we celebrate this day, let us give thanks for those who have given their lives, let us honor those who continue to serve, and let us dedicate ourselves to being agents of blessing and peace.
Please join me in using this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, in whose hands are the living and the dead:  We give you thanks for all your servants who have laid down their lives in the service of our country. Grant to them your mercy and the light of your presence; and give us such a lively sense of your righteous will, that the work which you have begun in them may be perfected; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.  Amen.
Gary Hall