Today is Memorial Day. This is one of the few years when I am not in eastern KY with family to enjoy fellowship and the decorating of my father’s grave. Andi and I have been away so much the last few weeks that we needed to spend a weekend at home; more on the nature of our recent absences in a future post.
Memorial Day is, of course, an American federal holiday which honors the fallen veterans of war. The holiday was enacted soon after the Civil War to recognize the service of Union soldiers and has been expanded throughout the years, especially after WWI, to include not only those who gave their lives in military service, but also to include all family and friends who have passed away. Cemeteries all over the country will be packed today with those who wish to formally remember the life of someone they loved. For Christians, Memorial Day and the reality of cemeteries bring about some interesting questions concerning the nature of the memorial.
A memorial is a thoroughly biblical concept. The Bible, especially the Scriptures that make up the Old Testament, is replete with observances and memorials to recognize the providential and often pivotal circumstances of those who trust in the Lord. The Hebrew Passover described in Exodus 12 is established to remind the chosen people of God of their former status as slaves and their identity as a people freed by the powerful arm of God. Interestingly, this memorial was established and ratified before the event it signified had even taken place! This Passover meal serves as a type for the New Testament Passover Lamb, Jesus Christ. Matthew 26 describes the memorial known as the Lord’s Supper, a continual fulfillment and progression of what God was doing in redemptive history. We do this ordinance in remembrance of Jesus Christ, Calvary, and the resurrection.
But there is something markedly different about the Bible’s understanding of a memorial compared to what many will be doing today around grave stones. The purpose of the Passover and now the Lord’s Supper was not ultimately about looking back to remember. It is about looking forward in hope. Paul’s statement to the church at Corinth sheds additional light on the Lord’s Supper. Why do we offer such a memorial? Because “whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). Although there is an element of looking back when we partake of the bread and cup of the table, it is more concerned with looking forward to the imminent and definite return of Christ. This is why we are to come to the table in a worthy manner. Notice Paul’s next word in 1 Cor. 11:27, “Therefore.” If we were to trace the argument of Paul in this chapter, 1 Cor. 11:27 would be known as an inference, that is, it is preceded by its supporting statement. “Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.” Why? Because when we eat the bread and drink the cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Memorial Day is both a day of great celebration for Christians as well as a day of challenge and conviction. As we make our way to the local cemetery we must bring with us a biblical view of memorial. We are thankful for memories. We are thankful for past relationships. But we are more thankful that we look forward in confident hope to a day of glorious reunion. Without that forward looking, these precious memories can only lead to an ultimate reminder that all is gone and will never be again. I fear that Memorial Day is the most dreaded of holidays for those who don’t believe.
Memorial Day also challenges and convicts Christians to remind us of the enemy of death. As pastor John Piper is apt to say, “life is short, eternity is long.” Maybe the classic hymn says it best:
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save.
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.
Oh yes, Jesus is merciful friends. Jesus will save.