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Memorial Day Reflection

by Suzanne VanderWeyst

This year, Memorial Day falls on the Monday after Pentecost Sunday. Recently, I sat for a few hours contemplating these two days of commemoration. One is a solemn day, commemorating the lives of men and women who died in any war or military action since the Civil War. The other is a day of hope in the Christian tradition, commemorating the descent or outpouring of the Spirit on the Christ disciples.

So what potential meaning can there be in connection with these two days? This was the question I sat with for a while.

What came up first for me was that though our present day celebrations of Memorial Day often include picnics, get-togethers, relaxing, and fun, it is a day of solemnity. We are acknowledging as a community—a nation—people who died in military conflicts. Days, moments, or rituals of solemnity serve an important role in our communal and spiritual act of remembering. Acts of remembering can teach us and guide us if we open ourselves to learning from them—a second, third or hundredth time.

However, there is something else about remembering deceased military service members on Memorial Day: What about those who died unidentified or unknown?

This question reminded me of the time in my early military training when I went to the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C and stood several feet away from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. For those in the military, past or present, going to the site of the tomb is like a pilgrimage. Before getting there, you walk past rows of hundreds of marked gravesites of military veterans of war. You become very aware of the magnitude of the cost of our nation’s wars and the potential cost of your military service.

The day I was there, it was sunny with clear skies. However, as I looked at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, there was a solemn shadow cast in my heart. Nobody knows who this person is? Yet looking further at the tomb I saw an inscription that read:

“Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

Hope can be found in acknowledging that Spirit knows the unidentified deceased. Further, Pentecost reminds us that Spirit is with us, and that same Spirit can guide us in prayerful memory of those service men and women only known but to God.

May we spend a moment of our Memorial Day in prayer for our service members and the family and friends of those whose gravesites are unknown. May we do so in the hope that Spirit knows and will guide our remembering.