Separated by ten days, the Church’s feast of All Saints (Nov. 1st) and the State’s holiday of Veteran’s Day (Nov. 11th) have a lot in common. Both are opportunities in the course of otherwise-ordinary life when our community at large is directed to look at a particular group of people in our midst, past and present. As the Saints of the Church are the great heroes of the faith forming a “great cloud of witnesses” that encourage us to “run the race with endurance” and, ultimately, look to Jesus as the example of examples, so too in Veteran’s Day do we look at those heroes of our nation’s memory and cause.
We cannot conflate the Saints of the Church and the Veterans of the Nation as if they were synonymous groups; we separately render unto God what is God’s and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. But we can rightly celebrate and honor those who put their lives on the line serving this country. Historically, in the case of November 11th specifically, the original remembrance was the sacrifices many made fighting in the Great War (WW1), which was supposed to be the war to end all wars. And so, though sadly many wars have followed that dark decade, we still cling to that original ideal and hope: that wars may finally cease and that no more new veterans will need to be added to the lists. It is similar with the Saints of the Church, particularly the martyrs: we hope and yearn for that day when no more Christian lives need to be given over to martyrdom.
In our relatively prosperous times, it has gotten easier to be cynical about the wars that we fight. Especially since the involvement of TV reporting in the Vietnam era, popular support for wars and our veterans has waned. How can we honor people who were engaged in a cause we might not accept as just? This is where, to some extent, the analogy between All Saints’ Day and Veteran’s Day begins to break down: Christian martyrs died for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and even the most just of earthly wars will never be as pure and holy as the Gospel.
Yet we are commanded in Scripture to give honor to whom honor is due, and we are taught in Scripture that we are to pray for government leaders and to be loyal to our earthly homeland. We don’t always necessarily agree with every action taken, decision made, or war waged, but as Christians we are bound by the rule of love to honor those who have sacrificed themselves for us and for our society; and one of the primary ways we do that is by mourning with those who mourn and rejoicing with those who rejoice – in this case, honoring our veterans who have come home with memories the majority of us will likely never fully understand.
The Church of England has assembled, from various verses of Scripture, a short anthem in commemoration of Remembrance Day, November 11th (source link, scroll to page 575).
God is our refuge and strength; a very present help in trouble.
I lift up my eyes to the hills – from whence will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning.
Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary they shall walk and not faint.
What does the Lord require of you but to do justice,
and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
(Psalm 46:1, Psalm 121:1-2, Lamentations 3:21-23, Isaiah 40:31, Micah 6:8)
In these verses we are drawn to fix our eyes upon God. He is the protector, the helper, faithful to His covenant, filled with love for His people, merciful, giver of strength, the resurrection and the life. In response we are to live like him – justly, kindly, humbly.
In a way this is both an affirmation and a rebuke for a day like today. It affirms the rightness of honoring our veterans – those who have served as protectors, who have been faithful to the call of their earthly homeland, who have faced the reality of death, and have (figuratively) been restored to life in their returning home again. It is right and good to acknowledge these men and women who have showed us one of the most dramatic pictures of obedience and humility (not to mention courage!) we will ever see. And, besides this, the soldier is one of the very few occupations used in the Bible as an analogy of the Christian life.
At the same time, these verses provide something of a rebuke: we are to live justly, kindly, and humbly – the very fact that we have wars is a fact to our shame. We are called to dwell in unity, to be at peace with one another, and the fact that wars happen (justly or unjustly) is a dramatic picture of the reality of sin and brokenness that is rampant in the world ever since the first sin of Adam & Eve.
So let this day be one of solemnity, in several directions.
First, that we honor, respect, and thank the veterans in our midst. As with the Saints of the Church, we should always be showing due veneration; this day is simply a communal moment to remind and reorient ourselves to the continual giving of this honor, respect, and thanks.
Second, let us remember the sacrifice that is involved in the creation and maintenance of a community (country or otherwise). We are all called to sacrifice, to participation in our common “fabric of the world” in one way or another; as the modern proverb goes, “all gave some, some gave all.”
Third, and finally, let this day be a solemn reminder of our universal need for repentance and reconciliation. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; the reality of having veterans and warfare is a stark reminder that this world is not yet what it is to be. There is a city to come, not made with human hands, that heavenly Jerusalem which God calls home, and so, as God’s people, shall we.