O Judge of all the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, pg. 839)
Memorial Day’s origins go back to the Civil War, when women decorated the graves of their fallen sons and husbands. The roots of a national Memorial Day, a day to remember those who gave their lives in service to country, goes back to 1866 in Waterloo, New York.
I like the prayer above because it begins by acknowledging that God is judge of all the nations and therefore every nation (including our own) is accountable to God. This offers a counter-testimony to nationalist claims that God is “on our side.” (See See Bob Dylan.) Patriotism is a penultimate good, not an ultimate one. It can be manipulated by scoundrels to become idolatrous if we are not vigilant.
The collect recalls before the living God those who "in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy." Their lives of service and their willingness to lay down their lives for the sake of something bigger evokes in us grateful hearts. Those who have given the ultimate sacrifice deserve, at the very least, our sincere thanks.
But if we stop there, it seems to me we do not fully honor their memories. The second half of the prayer goads us to live in a way that makes their sacrifices count. We cannot talk about freedom without discipline (nor, for that matter, about discipline without freedom.) True freedom is not the right to do whatever we want to do whenever we want to do it; that's anarchy. Alternatively, discipline without freedom is fascism. Those who serve in the Armed Forces understand this connection. So, too, do those who seek to follow Jesus Christ.
So we continue to engage in this dance toward freedom and justice and peace, and this weekend is as good a time as any to pause in between grilled hot dogs not only to remember and to give thanks, but also to ask the harder follow-up question: how can we live our lives this week in ways that help us move toward the full inclusion of all of the people in this land so that everyone might "share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines?"
Note: This post is an updated and re-edited version of a post that first appeared on this blog on Memorial Day Weekend in 2010.