Back on May 5, 1868, General Logan of the Union Army issued his General Order #11 recognizing May 30, 1868 as the first Memorial Day. In commemoration of the day, flowers were put primarily on the graves of Union as well as some Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetary. In 1873, New York was the first state to officially recognize the day and by 1890 all the northern states had joined in the celebration honoring those men and women who had paid the ultimate price and died in the service of their country during the Civil War. Not surprisingly, the southern states chose to celebrate the memory of their fallen soldiers on different dates than the northern states. However, after WWI, the meaning of Memorial Day was changed to include remembrances for all soldiers who had perished in any war – not just the Civil War. And so, eventually, the southern states joined in what has become a national celebration each year in May.
In 1971, the date was changed from May 30th to the last Monday in May, consistent with the federal government trying to give its employees 3-day festive week-ends at various times throughout the year. However, several southern states still choose additional dates throughout the years to hold their own celebration of the Confederate forces. For example, Texas chooses January 19th; Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi choose April 26th; South Carolina chooses May 10; and Tennessee and Louisiana choose June 3rd.
However the states celebrate, it must be acknowledged that the traditions of Memorial Day have diminished during the last several decades. Many towns that used to hold Memorial Day parades or 21 gun salutes have stopped doing so; and legions of people believe that this special day is meant to remember all the people who have died – and this isn’t correct. Most people attribute the change in the observance of the day to be a result of changing the day to the last Monday in May. The idea of a three day festive week-end and the ability of federal employees to have three days off in succession seemed to have changed the solemnity of the occasion.
In fact, there is a move afoot to return the observance of the day back to May 30th, regardless of the day of the week that it falls on. Certainly the pre-race activities of the Indy 500 continue to honor the soldiers who have fallen in service to this country. Notwithstanding all the foregoing history, Memorial Day also symbolically marks the beginning of summer. In years past, it was traditional for families to visit cemeteries and decorate the graves of family members – both those who died in conflicts as well as the more recently departed. Food, being a significant part of the American tradition, was also part of the celebration, with food being laid out on the ground for sharing – the idea of our modern day picnic. Since this is normally the first outdoor meal of the season, the tradition of barbecue also originated as part of the Memorial day festivities.
While we remember the lives of those who have been lost on Memorial Day, think of all the days that we remember God throughout the year. Of course, there is Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, Maunday Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost (which was yesterday this year); and these are just the Christian celebrations. Then, all the Jewish celebrations are remembrances of God, although not Jesus as well, including Passover and Yom Kippur. Our calendar is full of remembrances.
The great part of all this is that we shouldn’t relegate remembering our fallen heroes, or God for that matter, to a specific day. We should be celebrating God’s love for us every day. The Lord Himself commanded the Jewish nation to celebrate a festival to Him three times a year. We are told in Ex. 23:14-16, “Three times a year you are to celebrate a festival to me. Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread; for seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in that month you came out of Egypt. No one is to appear before me empty-handed. Celebrate the Feast of Harvest with the firstfruits of the crops you sow in your field. Celebrate the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in your crops from the field.”
My encouragement this evening is to let you know that God wants you to celebrate Him every day. After all, it is because of Him that we have the opportunity to have eternal life. My prayer is that you will take a moment each day to remember, and to celebrate, the sacrifice that Jesus made for each of us, a sacrifice that we should remember, just as we remember our fellow countrymen who made the ultimate sacrifice for us that we can live in a country that allows us all to enjoy religious freedom. Grace and peace…