As the famous poem by Lt. Col. John McCrae goes;
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The red poppy has become a symbol of remembrance for those who have fallen in war.
Of all our Patriotic American holidays, Memorial Day strikes me as the most sacred and Christian-like among them. It has that balance between sober remembrance and joyful celebration. It forces the stories of those who never returned home to come before our attention, even as we prepare for family cookouts at the beginning of summer. This dynamic of solemnity and joy, fasting and feasting, is very much akin to how we celebrate our Christian holidays too: solemn or penitential preparation leading to joyful feasting and celebration. Most recently, we moved through the quiet and prayerful Ascentiontide (the 10-day period following Christ’s ascension into heaven) and arrived at the great joyful feast of Pentecost. This week (“Pentecosttide,” if you will) continues that celebration of the outpoured gift of the Holy Spirit, until we arrive at Trinity Sunday, which brings the Springtime sequence of special holidays and seasons to its close.
In the American Memorial Day we remember those who fought and died protecting this country, or protecting others across the world. By doing so we don’t blindly assume that every war has been just; rather we remember the obedient devotion and service of these men and women who paid the greatest price one can pay, in the service of our country. Regardless of how perfect our country might be at a given time (especially considering how corrupt the Roman Empire was when St. Paul wrote in Romans 13:6 that the Emperor was God’s minister for secular rule), our Christian mandate is to be good citizens and respect our leaders, and so it is a right and good and joyful thing to honor our fellow countrymen who laid down their lives for the sake our communities, local and national.
Very similarly, the Christian Church has had a tradition of remembering her own great servants and martyrs throughout history. The mentality is much the same: heroes of our community (in this case, the Church) have given great service to Christ and His people, and we do well to remember them, their teaching, their examples, or whatever else they did, and to give thanks to God for them. If you dig around through calendars old and new, you could find thousands of saints to fill the entire year, so there’s always some selection that has to be made to work out who is “more beneficial” to our spiritual growth for us to remember. One such example, whose feast day is today, May 26th, is Saint Augustine of Canterbury.
This St. Augustine was born in Rome in the 500’s and sent to England in the year 597 to reconvert the British Isles to Christianity. Although the Roman Empire had brought Christianity there only a few years after the Book of Acts leaves off, subsequent invasions had diminished the Christian population, and fresh evangelistic effort was needed. St. Augustine was sent to lead a tiny mission; the local king granted him some land in the town of Canterbury to set up an abbey from which to base his work, and the rest is history. He was the first Archbishop of Canterbury, and his remembrance is one that links us not just to the post-reformation Anglican identity, but to the deep roots of Christian history. Through the remembrance of individuals such as Augustine of Canterbury, we are drawn deeper into the realization that the Body of Christ is bigger than our local church, our diocese, our tradition, or even our world, but also the many centuries of Christ-followers preceding us. We are all united in Christ. Additionally, I am a member of a Fraternity of clergymen that has been formed in the Anglican Church in North America, named after St. Augustine of Canterbury, which is dedicated to fostering and teaching that historic (or catholic) root behind the Anglican tradition that enriches our life and worship with not just 500 years of Christianity (since the Reformation) but 1,500 years of Christianity and beyond.
So as American Memorial Day draws us closer to those service-men and -women, most of whom we never knew, reminding us that we are one family as Americans, so too do saints’ days like today remind us that we are one family as Christians. And this reality is empowered by the Holy Spirit, whose gift we especially celebrate this Pentecost Week.