Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers

Those who believe ritual and ceremony are meaningless have never watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers in Arlington Cemetery.  This article by Sarah Kaufman on the soldiers who perform this duty–the precision of their marching, the seams of their uniforms tailored to 1/64th of an inch, their shoes and gear obsessively polished–makes for a good Memorial Day meditation.  Read it all, but here are some excerpts:

Like so many great romantic moments in the arts, it begins with the tolling of a bell. The sound dies. Hushed anticipation. Finally, the soldier makes his entrance — no ordinary recruit, but the relief commander of the 3rd U.S. Infantry, taking part in the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

You could land an airplane on the flatness of his hat, balance teacups on his shoulders. He has been polished and honed to perfection, a man as monument, symbol and embodiment of order, respect and dignity.

Washington life swirls around him — crowds gather and disperse, jets climb into the clouds, the cemetery’s infernal lawn mowers roar. The weather may bake or freeze him — the high, marble mesa on which the tomb rests, at the top of a hill affording one of the loveliest views of the city, can feel like the hottest spot on Earth, even in May. It can also approach the coldest, as when blizzards covered the city two winters ago, and snow buried the plaza as fast as soldiers could shovel it. They replaced their shiny black shoes with combat boots. But the vigil and guard changes went on around the clock, as they do now and have since 1937.

The world doesn’t matter here, in this outdoor theater where the show always goes on. This guard posting is a marathon of purity, a spectacle of the finest abstraction and strictest minimalism, where precise, unthinking repetition blots out just about everything else.

The commander strides across the plaza, past the sarcophagus containing the remains of service members from World Wars I and II and Korea. (An unknown from the Vietnam War had joined them, but his remains were removed and returned to his family when DNA testing revealed his name.) He takes slow, measured steps, rolling his shoes on their outer edges so there’s no hint of a bounce in his body.

It’s the most luxurious legato. The man is a play of contrasts: loose in the knees, square in the chest, all business in the eyes. You know this even though you can’t actually see his eyes because of his sunglasses, so tightly fused to his skull they must be giving him a migraine. But there’s enough expression in his granite jaw to suggest that those hidden eyes are cold. Still, that delicious walk goes on, 18 steps, 20, 21 . . . clack! It’s brought up short, punctuated by a sharp clap of the heels. The metal plates on the inner edges of the shoes are one of many modifications to the basic dress-blues uniform.

The changing of the guard ceremony is like that, a precise, stop-start ballet performed by three men — commander, relief sentinel and the retiring sentinel— alternating between smooth and sharp, silence and staccato pops. With that same liquid gait, the relief sentinel makes his entrance, brandishing the most beautiful, sparkling M-14 you’ve ever seen. . . .

[Sgt. Benton Thames] recalls a time when several World War II veterans in wheelchairs were watching the ceremony. As Thames walked past them with that stately gait, buttons blazing, uniform pressed to a razor sharpness, behind his sunglasses he could see the old soldiers pushing down on their armrests, trying with all their trembling might to stand.

“Those that could saluted me as I passed,” Thames says, swinging his right hand up to his brow with a shy smile, a gesture both casual and elegant.

“That kind of got to me.”

A veteran once told Thames that he’d lost a buddy in World War II and that the body was never recovered. When he comes to the Tomb of the Unknowns, the veteran imagines that those remains belong to that guy — and this becomes the place where he can be mourned as if his name were cut in stone.

This is why the sentinel buffs his shoes, hollers for a good tucking-in, submits to having his creases measured to within a fraction of an inch. This is why he has seemingly shaved away every shred of his own individuality, his identity, for a task whose purpose is, at the heart of it, exquisitely tender. It is the physical expression of an intangible wish, the fulfillment of a promise.

Long past Memorial Day.

“All soldiers recognize that it represents them,” says Barrett, The Citadel professor. “Underlying the tomb is that if something happens to you and we can’t identify you or find you, that ceremony still honors you.

“We ask them, if necessary, to lay down their lives,” he continues, his voice faltering with emotion, for he was once a soldier. “This is the corollary: They will not be forgotten.”

via At Tomb of the Unknowns, a ritual of remembrance – The Washington Post.

Happy National Day of Reason!

In their attempt to become, in effect, a socially-acceptable religion–getting military chaplains, vaunting how moral they are, and evangelizing the unenlightened–atheists are trying to start a holiday.  May 5 is the National Day of Reason!

I love holidays and I love reason, so I am willing to celebrate. . .uh, what is it we are celebrating?  I will try to set aside time to think.  But don’t we need something more to inspire our observance, to give it some meaning?  It turns out that May 5 was chosen simply to counter something else that is on that day, the National Day of Prayer.  The atheists are protesting that by trying to take over the day for themselves.

This demonstrates the weakness of atheism.  It is purely reactive.  Its doctrines are purely negative (there is no God; there is no life after death; there is no meaning in life).  And even when its teachings are put in a positive way–we believe in reason! we believe that material things are all that exist!–there is nothing, really, to celebrate, or even to be happy about.

Actual holidays, on the other hand, commemorate some meaningful event and we celebrate the meaning.  They usually involve some kind of story.  They are deeply, richly, human, evoking family and good memories and inspiration.  And Christian holidays–widely recognized even by devotees of other religions are the best of all–are full of wonder and joy.  The root of “festival” is “feast.”  “Holiday” means “holy day.”   You can’t have a holiday without some sense of holiness.

It’s hard to celebrate an abstraction, such as “reason.”  But, hey, let’s give it a try.  How could we do to make the Day of Reason work as a holiday?  What would be the equivalent of a Christmas tree or Easter basket for the Day of Reason?  What foods should be associated with this day of rationality?  If it ever rates a day off, what should individuals and families do?

National Day of Reason :: About Us.

He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows

On this Good Friday I urge you to read and to meditate upon that astonishing prophecy of Christ’s Passion and His redemptive work in Isaiah 53.  In doing so, consider these words:

Surely he has borne our griefs

and carried our sorrows;

yet we esteemed him stricken,

smitten by God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions;

he was crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,

and with his stripes we are healed.

We are familiar with the notion that Christ on the Cross bore our transgressions and our iniquities, though we can never plumb the depths of that truth.  But we don’t hear much about how He also bore our “griefs” and our “sorrows.”  What does that mean, and what difference does that make in our lives?

Good Friday conjunctions

This year Good Friday falls on April 22, which is also the new environmentalist holiday of Earth Day.  (It is also “89ers’ Day,” the anniversary of the Oklahoma Land Run in 1889, as all of my fellow Oklahomans should know.)   Some churches, usually of the more liberal persuasion, are trying to honor Good Friday and Earth Day together, recommending ecological gestures to honor Christ and suggesting that Christ died for the Earth.

He did die for the world.  And the whole creation suffered from the Fall and is in travail until the coming of Christ.  So can we make legitimate connections?

Easter and Baptism

Did you realize that you were buried in the tomb with Jesus?  And that on Easter morning when He rose from the dead, you did too?  That’s what your baptism accomplished, according to the Bible:  “having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12).

Was Easter originally a Pagan Holiday?

The charge is that the word “Easter” derives from the name of a pagan fertility goddess “Eostre.”   It is said that Christians took over a spring festival devoted to this deity.  But this article by British historian Anthony McRoy debunks that claim: Was Easter Borrowed from a Pagan Holiday? | Christian History.

Briefly, the connection to Eostre was made by the Venerable Bede, the medieval church historian, but we can find no other mention of the goddess or any festival associated with her.  Prof. McRoy accounts for what may have been Bede’s misunderstanding with some other etymological accounts of the origin of our word “Easter.”

Besides, English and the other Germanic languages are  the only languages that calls the Festival of the Resurrection “Easter.”  Everyone else calls it some version of “Pascha,” which derives from the Hebrew word for “Passover.”  And the holiday was celebrated extremely early in the church’s history, evidently by the 2nd century.  And its original celebration in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean sea shows no connection at all to any pagan festivals.


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