What is honor? The full etymology of the word is debated, but what seems most likely is that it comes from the Latin word honos, which, though translated as “honor,” also points to the word “onus,” which means “weight” or refers to something heavy. Hence, to honor someone is to appreciate the weight, significance, or burden of something he has done. It is to acknowledge that he carried a great burden well, that he withstood a heavy load, that what he did was weighty, significant.
For many, Memorial Day means the beginning of summer. To others, it’s a day off to go shopping. But as I am sure you know, Memorial Day is really a day to honor those who have died in the service of our country, those who carried a great burden so that many of us did not have to.
Our soldiers, police officers, and first responders are deserving of our honor, for they put their lives on the line so that we can live more freely and experience abundance. None of us can fail to appreciate the burdensome weight that some carry so that we can live well, freely, and comfortably. Freedom is not free; it is costly.
War remains controversial (as well it should). But soldiers do not create the politics they are sent to address. They are simply told that there is a danger to be faced, an injustice to be ended; and so they go. Private First Class Arthur Richardson is one of those who went north during the Korean War and did not return. He carried well the great weight of being a solider. He also carried the weight of collective human sinfulness (which is what brings war) and felt its burden keenly; he gave his life.
The love of one’s country (patriotism) is related to the fourth commandment. The Catechism teaches,
It is the duty of citizens to contribute to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity (CCC # 2239).
The Lord Himself makes it plain: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
I recently watched Ken Burns’ documentary film on the Second World War, entitled simply, “The War.” It remarkably depicts the suffering and cost, and the burdens carried, especially by the soldiers. But it also shows the sacrifices made by many back home who scrimped, saved, and went without. Some endured the loss of loved ones. Some were detained in camps.
Each episode of the documentary begins and ends with the same beautiful and haunting anthem and can be heard in the video below. Its basic theme is “America, I gave my best to you.” The full text is as follows:
All we’ve been given by those who came before
The dream of a nation where freedom would endure
The work and prayers of centuries have brought us to this day
What shall be our legacy? What will our children say?
Let them say of me I was one who believed
In sharing the blessings I received.
Let me know in my heart when my days are through
America, America, I gave my best to you.
Each generation from the plains to distant shore
With the gifts they were given were determined to leave more.
Battles fought together, acts of conscience fought alone:
These are the seeds from which America has grown.
For those who think they have nothing to share,
Who fear in their hearts there is no hero there.
Know each quiet act of dignity is that which fortifies
The soul of a nation that will never die.
America, [America] I gave my best to you.
The word “memorial” comes from the Latin memorare, which is an imperative meaning “Remember!” So Memorial Day is “Remember!” Day. To remember something is to allow it to be present in our minds and hearts such that we are grateful, sober, aware, and different.
This is a day to remember that there are men and women who have died so that you and I are able to live with greater security, justice, and peace. May these fallen soldiers rest in peace. We owe them both a debt of gratitude and our prayers.
Here is the song and video from “The War” by Ken Burns.