A Memorial: Inspiration or Pain?

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, National Mall

Vietnam Memorial at the National Mall in Washington D.C.

Memorial Day Confusion. This past Monday, as my husband and I walked into the Beau Rivage Memorial Day Brunch, I noticed a war veteran and his wife entering beside us. Wishing to honor them both, I said, “I hope you enjoy your Memorial Day Celebration.” The wife’s response surprised me, “Thank you my dear, but today is not a celebration, it’s a memorial.” Somewhat confused, I found myself wondering, “What’s a memorial? Does it represent a somber remembrance or a celebration?” My answer, “both.” Join me on a historical and spiritual quest as we explore several key, historical moments which have been forever memorialized. Our ultimate destination may surprise you, however, for there, we will find the simultaneous beauty and pain depicted in the “folly” of the Cross, (1Corinthians 1:18).

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Memorial Day is a federal holiday dedicated to the remembrance of United States soldiers who died while serving in the armed forces. Historically, “memorial day” began in the south, prior to the Civil War, as families gathered to decorate the grave sites of their long lost relatives. By 1865, after Lincoln’s assassination, burial memorializations quickly gained national significance, as over 600,000 family members were lost on both sides. By 1968, the United States Congress had recognized Memorial Day as a national holiday and required day off from work. Today, many people still decorate cemeteries and memorials to honor the dead, especially those who have died in military service. To many, the placing of gravesite flags and flowers often takes on a religious tone, indicating their simultaneous sense of appreciation and lost, and their spiritual understanding of self-sacrifice and redemption.

Rows of American Flags on Memorial Day

Signs and symbols have always played a vital role in every human culture, social structure, and religious system. In fact, many key moments and events in history have been forever recorded in art work or memorials. But what is the ultimate purpose of these memorials? The specific historical events may vary, however, each created sign or symbol seems to serve as a badge of faith, teaching tool, aid for complex philosophical understanding, or spiritual way forward. All seem to represent a simultaneous celebration and somber remembrance. Many such examples can be found in the Washington D.C. area, including the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, located in Arlington, VA. This beautiful and inspiring statue not only memorializes the courage and bravery of the Marines, who gallantly fought in this World War 2 Battle, but also brings to mind the amount of lives lost during the pacific campaign. This loss, although extremely painful, ultimately lead to our country’s victory. Therefore, their loss produced life for others.

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Iwo Jima War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.

But courageous, self-sacrifice is not the only lesson to be learned from various memorials. Another Washington D.C. example, the Holocaust Museum, offends and leaves the onlooker extremely uncomfortable, as it highlights the ugliness of sin. Indicating the direct horrors of war, it stands as a painful reminder and points us towards peaceful co-existence. It instructs, inspires compassion, and motivates onlookers to advocate for equal rights for all, no matter what their religion, race, gender or ethnic origin.

US Holocaust Museum in Washington

Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.

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Painful Lesson or Inappropriate Celebration? Four controversial Civil War Monuments have been recently removed from the city of New Orleans due to the uncomfortable feelings aroused by each. From left to right, monuments of: Jefferson Davis on the corner of Jefferson Davis Parkway at Canal Street, Robert E. Lee Monument in Lee Circle, Battle of Liberty Place obelisk, and P.G.T. Beauregard at the entrance to City Park at Esplanade.

As Christians, we find a similar discomfort as we gaze upon the crucified body of Jesus on the Cross, for there we find the simultaneous ugliness of abuse and the promise of a brighter future. There, we find the ugliness and pain of Christ’s passion, and the beauty and life giving depth of His redeeming love and mercy. Ironically, the Cross, a symbol of Roman torture and public humiliation, has become a symbol for Christ’s self-sacrificial death of atonement, victory over sin, and offering of eternal life. This physical memorial truly represents the Christian dichotomy, or, according to St. Paul, the “folly” of the Cross, (1Corinthians 1:18).

Catholic church and Jesus Christ on crucifix

The crucifix, Latin for cruci fixus or “fixed on a cross”, is a cross with an image or figure of Jesus attached. The Jesus figure is often referred to as the corpus, or body in Latin.  Once viewed as an instrument of torture or public humiliation, it has become a Christian symbol of Christ’s sacrificial death and atonement for all mankind.

The crucifix is of primary importance to many Christian groups, including the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental, Assyrian, Lutheran and Anglican Churches. Many Evangelical Protestants prefer a bare cross in celebration of the risen Christ. As Catholics, we also profess Christ’s Resurrection, however, we lovingly gaze upon the Crucified Christ in remembrance of His redemptive Passion and Death, endured before the Resurrection. There, on the Cross, we are not only reminded of His once and for all sacrifice, but also His redeeming love for each of us. The crucifix is given a place of honor and prominence in every Catholic Church. Thereby, during the celebration of every Mass, it remains clearly visible and serves as a constant reminder of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, made present in the Holy Eucharist.

Although the image of the crucifix can be offensive to many, its very uncomfortable display reminds us of the ugliness of our sins and humanity’s great need for the undeserving gift of salvation. Our salvation is the result of a willing sacrifice by the Son of God, who chose to suffer and die because He loved the world and each of us. The crucifix, along with the artistically depicted Stations of the Cross, helps believers to visually meditate upon and better understand the actual events of that first Good Friday. There, upon the cross, we find the very face of suffering, the punctured hands and feet of forgiveness, the crown of humility, and the pierced side of God’s mercy, gushing forth with the blood of redemption and waters of eternal life.

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Crucifix positioned over the actual site of the Lord’s Passion in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

As Christians, the crucifix points not only to our belief in the promise of eternal life, but also the Christian call to offer our own self sacrifice and service to God, His Church, our family, neighbors and nation. The crucifix, therefore, represents the life of Christian discipleship, and our willingness to freely fulfill our divinely inspired vocation. It represents our personal call to imitate the Lord, as we say, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” So the next time you gaze upon the face of self-sacrifice and love, try to embrace the simultaneous joy and agony on display. Look upon the crucified and resurrected Lord in remembrance of His:

  • eternal sacrifice, made present to each of us during the celebration of the Mass
  •  victory over sin and death, and our subsequent gift of eternal life
  • life of mercy and teachings on beatitude, as we strive to “deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow” Him, (Matthew 16:24).
  • service and love for all mankind, as we strive for peaceful coexistence and the dignity of every life.

In doing so, remember all those who have gone before us, as beacons of light, offering their own life for the sake of others. This captures the true spirit of Memorial Day! Thank you to all who have served our country with valor. May God bless you and your families.

Closing 3:00 Prayer for Divine Mercy.

Eternal Father, I offer You, the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your Dearly Beloved Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and the sins of the entire world.

For the sake of His Sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the entire world. (Repeat two more times).

Jesus, I trust in You. Amen

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