What are we memorializing on Memorial Day?

By Mark Lombard, Clarion Herald

Next Monday, May 27, is Memorial Day. This day, dating back to the carnage of the Civil War, has been set aside for more than 50 years as an official U.S. federal holiday to remember and honor those who have died in service.

And yet this last Monday of May each year, with its annual changing date, is mostly observed as the unofficial beginning of a summer of fun, complete with parades and events for the long weekend. Many celebrate the day with family and friends having a cookout or maybe a picnic at a park, though it may also include more sober time to visit cemeteries where American flags are placed at sites of those who died in military service.

Memorial Day pulls at very different emotions of partying and enjoying those we love on the one hand and remembering those who loved so greatly to have lost their lives in defense of our country on the other. For Catholics, our worship of a merciful and life-giving God gives us even greater pause for trying to understand the meaning of war and the ultimate sacrifice of those who have been lost.

This year, Memorial Day falls a week and a half before the 75th anniversary of D-Day on June 6. That battle began the 11-week battle for Normandy that left casualties on both sides totaling almost half a million soldiers and civilians. And while my dad did not die in service, living until he was 87, his service during the Second World War was the significant event in his life. He was a quiet man, humble, enjoying a good laugh always about himself and not others. He was not one to talk much about his military service as part of the 1st Infantry Division (the Big Red 1) in North Africa, in Sicily, at Omaha Beach, in France and in Germany, though he did write a 50th anniversary memoire for his family to answer all of the questions we asked when growing up that he had refused to answer.

His story, like so many of his generation, was one of unassuming sacrifice. In his case, not being able to afford to go to college, he decided to enlist a year before Pearl Harbor in hopes of learning a trade while in the service and being ready when war, which seemed inevitable, came.

There was no glory as he told his story, despite his being awarded the Bronze Star for “heroic” service in leading men in Normandy and three Purple Hearts for wounds received in battle.

He did not want to show off those medals to his three sons when we were growing up, but rather he talked about how difficult it was to see those of that band of brothers lost to gunfire, not making it off the Normandy beaches and just trying to survive another day. His thoughts were not only for his comrades in arms, but also for those he was fighting, noting how young, scared, cold and hungry they were as well.

When, as an adult as he was nearing the end of his life 10 years ago, I could get him to open up about his experiences, he would quietly speak of the great loss of life of so many vital men whose families were forever changed by war. And, yet, he always maintained that knowing what he saw and experienced, he would have done it again to defend his country.

So, how should we approach this Memorial Day? We have the  unique privilege each year to memorialize, honor and pray for all of those who have fallen with a real appreciation for the pain, hardship and suffering such service sometimes requires.

But Memorial Day is for me also a time to recall the commitment and sacrifice of those who, like my father, answered the call to service and somehow by the grace of God, in sometimes inexplicable ways, survived the inhumanity of war.

The basis of that sacrifice is to put one’s self at the service of a good greater than one’s own comfort, benefit, self-aggrandizement. For my father and for others in military service, they took the road into harm’s way to help protect the lives and freedoms of their families and neighbors. Their walk mirrored Jesus’ path to Calvary, through which he points us to living life abundantly in concert with God.

Their sacrifice is the gift we receive and the example of service we are provided to emulate in our families, our churches, our communities.

The book, ”Catholic House hold Blessings of Prayers,” published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, offers us a special prayer for Memorial Day: “God of power and mercy, you destroy war and put down earthly pride. Banish violence from our midst and wipe away our tears, that we may all deserve to be called your sons and daughters. Keep in your mercy those men and women who have died in the cause of freedom and bring them safely into your kingdom of justice and peace. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Mark Lombard is the business manager and a contributing editor of the Clarion Herald.

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