Memorial Day: Come with me to Arlington Cemetery
It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Ecclesiastes 7:2
Just weeks ago, as pinkish-white cherry blossoms graced the grayish-white marble headstones of the dead who served our country, we walked and rode through Arlington Cemetery. The delicacy of the blossoms’ beauty and the massive orchestration of rows upon rows of markers belie the horror and chaos of the wars that have sent so many men and women to these forested hills overlooking Washington D.C.
Another ironic juxtaposition–the first soldiers buried here were Union soldiers killed in the Civil War, laid to rest in the shadow of Arlington House, the plantation home of General Robert E. Lee and his wife, who purchased the land to build their Virginia plantation. They left the large home built by African slaves when Lee took command of the Confederate army, never to return. The U.S. military occupied the vacated estate and eventually purchased the land from Lee’s heir.
With the precision of a close order drill, the rows of markers line the drives and encircle the contours of the hills. Even in death, the soldiers seem to lie “at attention,” conformed to the hyper-orderliness of their military lives.
But what most deeply impacted us was the scale of all those rows and lines. You can turn a 360 degree circle and the rows fan out as far as the eye can see.
Over 400,000 are buried within the square mile of the cemetery. You can walk through the midst of a massive crowd, yet all is quiet. Any view can only take in a fraction of those who have died to give us our beloved country. We owe so much to so many.
A small white sign reads, “Welcome to Arlington National Cemetery, our nation’s most sacred shrine. Please conduct yourselves with dignity and respect at all times. Please remember these are hallowed grounds.”
The enormity of the sacrifice takes my breath away. Each and every one gave everything they had to give. For every headstone, how many loved ones’ lives were wrecked with the news? How many children grew up with no fathers or mothers? The consequences ripple out from sea to sea, down through how many years.
We can be so focused on the brokenness of school shootings, the war in Ukraine, the disappearance of cheap and plentiful. But we have so much to be grateful for. Surely one day a year is far too little to give thanks in proportion to the great gifts we have been given.
I loved visiting Arlington at this time of year. Most of the trees are still “sleeping,” like the bodies under their canopies. But the cherry trees are the harbingers of new life–the springtime renewal surging through nature and will relentlessly unfold, blossom and pop in the weeks to come.
In these fields and hills of mourning we are reminded of the great depths of our sorrows. The overwhelming breadth of our losses in this fallen world. We come face to face with “the end of all mankind,” as the Preacher in Ecclesiastes said. The end of the lives all around us. The end of our own lives. While we can jet ski through the shallows of our lives, preoccupied with our work, or children, or calendars, or bank accounts, God is deeply concerned with the end.
In Jeremiah 5:30-31 he asks, “An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?” Those who should speak truth are speaking lies. Those who rule are listening to them. And the majority is happy to go with that flow. But…what will you do in the end?
God wants “to do us good in the end” Deuteronomy 8:16. He wants us to consider our death. Where will we be? More importantly, whose will we be? Will we open our hearts to the Truth of how our sin leads to death and loss? How our faith in Jesus as our Savior overcomes the power of sin and death and leads us to his resurrection life of forgiveness and blessing?
May we live each day embracing the springtime hope of beauty and resurrection, even as we live with the end in view. May we bring God’s Kingdom of Truth and Life into each day of trouble and loss. Deuteronomy 30:19: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live..”
And may we, the living, take this to heart.
How do you honor the sacrifices of the fallen on Memorial Day?