I am always eager to restore meaning and magnificence to holidays that have been stripped bare of their true and deep significance by a flood of hot dogs, parades, auto races and yard sales. Memorial Day is one of America's true hidden spiritual gems.
Memorial Day was once called Decoration Day, and it once honored only the Union dead of the Civil War. Over time, it became a holiday to honor all those who serve and have served in the armed forces of the United States. However, limiting Memorial Day to the celebration of fallen soldiers, though essential, seems to me to be spiritually and culturally limiting.
I want you to consider what I believe to be the two towering spiritual truths of Memorial Day:
1) America is bigger than us;
2) God is bigger than America.
The first Memorial Day truth, that America is bigger than us, must challenge us to remember that we don't have freedom; we were bequeathed freedom by all those whose bodies lie under the U.S. flags in military cemeteries. We owe a debt to America for our freedom. This unassailable fact, sadly, is not at all obvious to many Americans who believe that America is just a place to pursue our private lives and careers.
But America is as much an idea as a place. There are many honorable ways to pay that debt without dying on the battlefield, although those who have died for our freedom are above us all. The debt of freedom and our generational efforts at repayment create a bond between us.
Our acknowledgment that America is bigger than any of us enables us to be bigger than we are. Lincoln knew this when he said in the closing words of his first inaugural address (1861): "We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic cords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
The second spiritual truth of Memorial Day is that God is bigger than America. What troubles some is that patriotism can appear as idolatry. Stanley Hauer, my friend and a professor at Duke Divinity School, has written eloquently about this spiritual and moral danger. Hauer loves Isaiah's critique of blind patriotism in Chapter 40 (17, 22-23, 28-31): "All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.
"It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in: It is he that bringeth the princes to nothing; he maketh the judges of the earth as vanity.
"Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? There is no searching of his understanding. He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint."
We must always remember the connection between freedom and God. This is not a connection between freedom and any particular religion. It is a connection directly between our Creator and our Creator's will that all people should live in freedom.
These words, inscribed on the Liberty Bell, "Proclaim Liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof," are God's words given in Leviticus 25:10.
Bringing freedom into our public life and culture is the meaning of bringing God into our public life and culture. Beyond freedom, every religious belief must remain private and sectarian.
God's will to freedom is God's gift of freedom through America to us all, and that's the basis for a holiday that goes way beyond and way above hot dogs. That's a holiday whose song we must all learn to sing in much stronger harmony:
"I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on."
-- "Battle Hymn of the Republic," Julia Ward Howe (1861)