May 25, 2015
The name was changed, but the focus was not.
Decoration Day. Originally practiced beginning in 1868 – after the Civil War (or, to some, the War Between the States) – when an organization of veterans from the Union Army declared a particular day in May for people to visit and honor the graves of the soldiers who fell in battle. Decoration Day grew in a viral manner, from the North to the South. It came to be observed on May 30th.
In 1882, the rebranding to Memorial Day began. It was not until 1968 that Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, making the last Monday of May the official, national commemoration for the men and women who gave their lives as members of our military forces in battle.
In America, our national ethos presumes our military actions to be just and honorable, instigated for defense of freedom or sovereignty rather than acquisition and conquest. It makes Memorial Day an appropriate recognition of the patriots who have made the ultimate investment in something bigger than their own safety and comfort.
Saving Private Ryan will be a higher-than-normal viewing choice this weekend, for people who are going deeper than ballgames and ballpark franks. In our generation’s exposure to war – in the entertainment format – it has been called one of the most thoughtful and accurate depictions of the brutal realities of combat. In the first 27 minutes of the movie, Steven Spielberg captured the Invasion of Normandy on D-Day in a way that has been etched into minds and history.
The emotional summit of the epic drama happens four decades later, when the elderly James Ryan visits the cemetery at Normandy with his family – wife, adult children, grandchildren – and finds the grave of Captain John Miller – played by Tom Hanks, in the movie – who led the eight-man squad commissioned to find and extract Ryan.
Miller’s dying words to Ryan had been defining: “James… earn this. Earn it.” Miller and two of his men died in the mission to save Ryan; as he was dying, Captain Miller challenges Private Ryan to live a life worthy of the cost paid on his behalf. Miller’s mission was to save Ryan; Ryan’s mission was to repay the favor with a life well lived, sacrificing himself in some meaningful way, as pay-back.
At Miller’s grave, Ryan gives the most powerful monolog of the 169 minute movie: “My family is with me today. They wanted to come with me. To be honest with you, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel coming back here. Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.”
As the trailer for the movie described it, “In the last great invasion of the last great war, the greatest danger for eight men was saving one.” For business people who think in terms of cost/benefit, the transaction makes no sense. Risk eight; lose three; gain one? It’s foolish, on one level; it’s inspiring, at the highest level. Men who don’t cry much lose their composure in Saving Private Ryan; it touches something deep within the vault of values and meaningful sacrifice.
Ryan wasn’t saved because of his good life; he lived his good life because he was saved. He didn’t earn his rescue; instead, the actions of the eight on his behalf called for him to live his life as a continuing memorial to the sacrifice they made for him.
Without quoting him, Miller captured the counsel of the Apostle Paul: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” (Ephesians 4:1)
For the America’s military who died defending us all, Memorial Day happens once a year. For the Savior who died redeeming us, every day is Memorial Day: “earn this…”