The roots of today’s national observance go back 148 years. On May 30, 1868, the first official Decoration Day was declared by General John A. Logan and observed at Arlington National Cemetery. Volunteers decorated the graves of more than 20,000 Confederate and Union soldiers.
During World War II, Decoration Day was expanded and renamed Memorial Day to honor all Americans who died in military service. Congress made the day a national holiday in 1971.
I consider Memorial Day to be one of the most significant days of the entire year. As I noted last Friday, remembering the past is vital to living in the present. And remembering those who have fallen is vital to serving those who serve. We owe those who have died in defense of our nation the most profound gratitude we can express.
What follows is my attempt to express such thanksgiving.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt observed, “In the truest sense, freedom cannot be bestowed; it must be achieved.” So it was that 240 years ago, soldier-statesmen declared themselves independent from Great Britain, then defended the nation their courage created. Many died to protect the freedom they achieved.
From then to today, each and every American has owed a personal debt to each and every American who has died in defense of our freedom. How can we strive to repay such a debt?
First, we emulate their courageous sacrifice.
Military officer Francis A. Walker testified, “We come, not to mourn our dead soldiers, but to praise them.” Today we praise them for their courage, their selfless sacrifice, their devotion to each other and to the cause of liberty. We praise them on behalf of millions of Americans they would never meet but whose freedom they purchased with their lives. And so I vow to be as sacrificial in my service to my calling as our fallen heroes were to theirs.
Second, we make our country a nation worth defending.
Over the years, I have asked many veterans how we can repay them for their service. Without exception, each one has asked that we make America worth their sacrifice. President Eisenhower was right: “A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.” And so I vow to do all I can to make our nation all it can be, to the glory of God.
Thomas William Parsons’s “Dirge For One Who Fell in Battle” ends this way:
On thy grave the rain shall fall from the eyes of a mighty nation!
Long as the sun doth shine upon it
Shall glow the goodly pine upon it,
Long as the stars do gleam upon it
Shall memory come to dream upon it.
May the tearful gratitude of our mighty nation water the graves of our heroes, today and every day. And may our memory dream upon their devotion and make their commitment our own.
David’s prayer for his nation is my prayer for ours today: “May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!” (Psalm 29:11). Amen.
Minot Judson Savage: “The brave die never, though they sleep in dust: Their courage nerves a thousand living men.” May his words be true for us today.