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On Memorial Day, We Remember the Dead

May 28th, 2012 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Memorial Day Commemoration 2008 Memorial Day Commemoration 2008 (Photo credit: davidyuweb)

On Memorial Day, we remember the dead.

It is an uncomfortable holiday.  There are few moments in our culture that prompt thoughtful, considered reflection about the meaning of our lives.  Memorial Day-to the serious observer-is one, for on it we are confronted by mortality.  As we remember those who too early journeyed to the undiscovered country, we acknowledge that we too shall someday be united with them. 

But on this day we do not simply remember the dead, but honor their sacrifice, for these dead gave themselves in service to our country.  And so we are confronted not simply by death, but by a particular sort of death, and so a particular sort of life.  It takes a peculiar virtue to lay down one's life for another.  "No greater love," it has been said, "than when a man lay down his life for his friends."

It is for this reason that the proper observance of Memorial Day is so essential to American culture, for it demands we recognize the tragedies of war and the importance of liberty, and that we display as heroes those who demonstrated the virtue of self-sacrifice.  Few ideals are so crucial to the promotion of the public good, or so dissonant with the surrounding culture.

But the memory of the faithful fallen also poses to us a question:  would we, when confronted by terms that involve life and death, have the strength of character and of will to lay down our own lives for the good of another?  Or would we shrink back to seek our own comfort, security, and safety?

In the shadow of this question, we discover ourselves.  Death is our final and greatest test, and it is the capstone and culmination of our lives.  We either prepare to die well, or not.  But in that final test, our true character is made known.  For the Christian, this is most clear in the story of the Cross:  only through the sacrificial death of One is death defeated and the identity of God revealed.

In remembering, then, those who died in service of America we are reminded that now is our opportunity to shape our character, to cultivate virtue, to pursue honor, so that if called we will have the courage to respond as they.

On Memorial Day, we remember the dead, and so seek to bring to life the virtues that made them honorable.  They have died to make our country great; let us live to make it greater.

Reposted from last year.  See also my remembrance of two fallen friends, and Dustin Steeve's thoughtful post over at Evangelical Outpost.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.