Memorial Day 2015

This coming Monday is Memorial Day, a holiday that has its roots during the Civil War, when people gathered to decorate the graves of the war dead. According to the Internet, May 30 was selected as the date for this observance, since flowers would be in bloom. The holiday was later moved to be on the last Monday in May.

President Lyndon Johnson, in his 1966 proclamation for the holiday, noted, “The Congress has requested the president to issue a proclamation calling upon the people of the United States to observe each Memorial Day as a day of prayer for permanent peace and designating a period during each such day when the people of the United States might unite in such supplication.”

That year the president designated the hour of 11 a.m. as the time that Americans should pray together. Whenever we choose to do so, it is a good thing to remind ourselves of our duty to pray for peace with our brothers and sisters around the world.

Memorial Day also has become like a spring version of All Souls Day, a day in which people visit cemeteries and pray for the souls of any dead friends and relatives. 

The Veterans of Foreign Wars, in a 2002 statement, advocated for the holiday to return to May 30. “Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”

The nonchalance to which the VFW was referring was our habit of viewing Memorial Day as just the beginning of summer (especially for Cape Cod, in our diocese), as opposed to being a time to remember and pray.

When recent popes have used the term “Memorial Day,” they do so mainly in reference to the Jewish feast of Passover or to a day in remembrance of the Holocaust during World War II.

On Holy Thursday 2000, St. John Paul II preached, “The blood of the lamb won for the sons and daughters of Israel liberation from the slavery of Egypt, under the leadership of Moses. The remembrance of so extraordinary an event became a festive occasion for the people, who thanked the Lord for freedom regained, a Divine gift and an enduringly relevant human task: ‘This day will be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord’” (Ex 12:14).

Later that year, on October 4, the Holy Father explained the term “memorial,” showing its Christian significance. He began by saying that “prominent among the many aspects of the Eucharist is that of ‘memorial,’ which is related to a Biblical theme of primary importance. We read, for example, in the Book of Exodus:  ‘God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Jacob’ (Ex 2: 24). In Deuteronomy, however, it says:  ‘You shall remember what the Lord your God did’ (7: 18). In the Bible, the remembrance of God and the remembrance of man are interwoven and form a fundamental element in the life of God’s people. However, this is not the mere commemoration of a past that is no more, but a zikkarôn, that is, a ‘memorial,’ It ‘is not merely the recollection of past events, but the proclamation of the mighty works wrought by God for men. In the Liturgical celebration of these events, they become in a certain way present and real’ (CCC, n. 1363). The memorial recalls the bond of an unfailing covenant:  ‘The Lord has been mindful of us; He will bless us’” (Ps 115: 12).

What St. John Paul shares with us here is something much deeper than planting a few flowers at a cemetery. He reminds us that a true “memorial” by a Christian brings us into the mystery of Christ’s sacrificial love for us, the love which can bring our deceased loved ones into Heavenly peace.

Like he did on Holy Thursday, the Polish pontiff recalled the Passover. “In the Old Testament, the ‘memorial’ par excellence of God’s works in history was the Passover Liturgy of the Exodus: every time the people of Israel celebrated the Passover, God effectively offered them the gifts of freedom and Salvation. In the Passover rite, therefore, the two remembrances converge: the Divine and the human, that is, saving grace and grateful faith. ‘This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord.’ By virtue of this event, as a Jewish philosopher said, Israel will always be ‘a community based on remembrance’” (Martin Buber).

Then we get to something we Catholics always celebrate: “The interweaving of God’s remembrance with that of man is also at the center of the Eucharist, which is the ‘memorial’ par excellence of the Christian Passover. For ‘anamnesis,’ i.e., the act of remembrance, is the heart of the celebration:  Christ’s sacrifice, a unique event done ephapax, that is, ‘once for all’ (Heb 7: 27; 9: 12, 26; 10: 12), extends its saving presence in the time and space of human history. This is expressed in the last command, which Luke and Paul record in the account of the Last Supper:  ‘This is My Body Which is for you. Do this in remembrance of Me. This cup is the New Covenant in My Blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me’ (1 Cor 11: 24-25; cf. Lk 22: 19). The past of the ‘Body given for us’ on the Cross is presented alive today and, as Paul declares, opens onto the future of the final redemption:  ‘As often as you eat this Bread and drink the Cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes’ (1 Cor 11: 26). The Eucharist is thus the memorial of Christ’s death, but it is also the presence of His sacrifice and the anticipation of His glorious coming. In the Eucharist this remembrance is alive and at work in a special way.”

St. John Paul towards the end of that October address explained what “an effective remembrance” is. He said that it has a dual reality: “one that is interior and leads to an understanding of the Word of God, and a Sacramental one, which takes place in the Eucharist.”

“‘To remember’ is therefore ‘to bring back to the heart’ in memory and affection, but it is also to celebrate a presence. ‘Only the Eucharist, the true memorial of Christ’s Paschal Mystery, is capable of keeping alive in us the memory of His love.’” Without the Eucharist, the pope warned, “‘without the Divine efficacy of this continual and very sweet incentive, without the penetrating power of this look of her Bridegroom fixed on her, [it would be easy] to fall into forgetfulness, insensitivity and unfaithfulness’ (apostolic letter Patres Ecclesiae, III:  Ench. Vat., 7, 33). In the Eucharist Christians nurture the hope of the definitive encounter with their Lord.”

Let us put down our hotdogs and hamburgers for a while this weekend and spend some time with Jesus in the Eucharist, offering it for our loved ones and for all the dead, so that they might have a definitive encounter with God’s mercy.

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts