Memorial Day kicks off the summer season. Winter has been vanquished, spring is fleeting, and the glory of summer is here. We gather with friends for a party or a barbecue. We travel to a lake or hop in the pool. We enjoy a day off from work and an extra long weekend.
But is there more to this beloved holiday?
The History of Memorial Day
While it serves as the unofficial kickoff of summer, the history and meaning of Memorial Day is far richer and deeper than barbecues and bonfires.
Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day originated in the late 1860s. Numerous communities began decorating the graves of fallen soldiers from the Civil War in the years following that bloody, divisive conflict. Both Northern and Southern states lay claim to the founding of this holiday.
In 1966, the federal government declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day. Waterloo first celebrated Decoration Day on May 5, 1866 by closing businesses and decorating the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags. By 1971, the final Monday in May was declared an official federal holiday and remains so today.
While the declaration of this holiday is clear, the symbolism behind it remains cloudier.
Our Present Struggle with Honor
Over 150 years ago, Memorial Day began as a day of honor, when communities came out to remember and honor those who had given their lives in a bitter conflict. But times have changed.
Some have suggested that we live in a culture at odds with honor. For those who grew up with cultural habits of honor (holding the door open, saying "please" and "thank you", referring to an elder male or female as "sir" or "ma'am"), the present moment may feel radically different.
But, as followers of Jesus, we're called to a different way. In the Scriptures, we're commanded to honor God and those around us. In Psalm 22:23, we read David's words. "You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!" In the book of Romans, chapter 12 verse 10, we read Paul's admonishing words to the Roman believers. "Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor." The contest we're called to win isn't tearing others down; it's one-upping with honor.
We often outdo one another today; sadly, it's rarely in terms of honor. When a mistake or flaw is pointed out, we typically pile on to criticize, mock, or shame. We honor those we like and support, yet we struggle to show that same honor to those we dislike, disapprove, or with whom we disagree.
At a time where it seems everyone's flaws are most evident, we need to remember that perfection isn't a prerequisite for honor. Agreement and alignment aren't needed for honor either. Honor doesn't even need to be earned for us to offer it up.
I think one of our biggest problems is we confuse respect with honor. Craig Groeschel has noted, "respect is earned but honor is given." Becoming a parent has presented me with my imperfections on a daily basis. This experience has taught me that the call to honor is not about earned respect, but showing honor for the role and position one holds.
This Memorial Day, we have an opportunity to honor and remember the millions of soldiers who have given their lives to protect and preserve the freedoms which are enjoyed today. While those soldiers names have been forgotten, the freedom endures and its benefits have not been forgotten.
What About The Future of Memorial Day?
I don't think it's a bad thing that we have parties and gather in small communities on this holiday weekend.
But, in addition to grilling burgers, going to the movies, and gathering with loved ones, we can do more.
We can tell the stories and remember the sacrifices of those who have given their lives to defend freedom. Consider inviting a veteran or an older relative to share about someone they know who gave their life in military service.
In your remembering, commit to embodying their best values. The Apostle John recorded the words of Jesus who said "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends." When I set aside my agenda for the good of someone else, I'm putting into practice the values that drove millions to give their lives. As many have said, freedom never comes free.
Look for an opportunity to turn honor into a shared experience. Whether it's decorating the graves of soldiers with flowers or flags, bringing a gift or meal to the family of a deceased veteran, or encouraging a military family who is making a great sacrifice, enlist others in your efforts to honor today.
It doesn't cost a lot to show honor to those who paid the greatest cost. But, it ensures the sacrifices they made are not in vain and never forgotten.
Scott Savage is a pastor and a writer. He leads Cornerstone Church in Prescott, Arizona. Scott is married to Dani and they are the parents of three “little savages.” He is the creator of the and you can read more of his writing at .