Too many of Americans have forgotten the origins of what we call “Veteran’s Day.” It started out being called “Armistice Day” in honor of the end of hostilities in World War I. I suppose this is another example of how we have forgotten the sacraments of our times — things that mean more than just the thing itself. Today, I want to remember what this sacrament means and what it does not mean.
World War I was, at the time, thought to be the war to end all wars. The same was said for World War II. Of course, neither war was the last war. Scripture tells us there will be wars and rumors of war, but the end is not yet to be. So, it appears to be man’s destiny to continue to experience wars. There are those who cling to a belief that war can be eliminated, usually by mankind simply being kind to each other and respecting each other. That utopian point of view ignores the nature of man and of the world in which man lives. While I may choose to be at peace with my neighbor, try as I may, I cannot force my neighbor to be at peace with me if my neighbor does not wish it. The same is true with nations.
As a veteran, I can say with great conviction that most veterans, and most soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors want peace. Most military men and women want peace and not war, but they also understand that there are people and nations in the world that do not share their desire for peace, and the only way for America to be at peace is to be prepared to go to war. Paradox, to be sure, but then there are lot of paradoxes in this world. Even Scripture mentions these “Rules of Opposites.” The one who wants to be first must be last. The one who wants to gain life must lose it. Give and it will be given to you.
The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, in the Palace of Versailles outside the town of Versailles, France, but the fighting ceased seven months earlier when an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For that reason, November 11, 1918, is generally regarded as the end of “the war to end all wars.”
In November 1919, President Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day with the following words: "To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…"
The United States Congress officially recognized the end of World War I when it passed a concurrent resolution on June 4, 1926, with these words:
Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed, and
Whereas it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations; and
Whereas the legislatures of twenty-seven of our States have already declared November 11 to be a legal holiday: Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring), that the President of the United States is requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on November 11 and inviting the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.
On May 13, 1938, Congress passed an act making the 11th of November in each year a legal holiday. The day was dubbed “Armistice Day” to honor veterans of World War I. In 1954, after World War II had required the greatest mobilization of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen in the nation’s history and after American forces had fought aggression in Korea, the 83rd Congress amended the Act of 1938 by changing “Armistice Day” to ‘Veterans Day” With the approval of this legislation (Public Law 380) on June 1, 1954, November 11th became a day to honor American veterans of all wars.
On October 8, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued the first "Veterans Day Proclamation" which stated: "In order to insure proper and widespread observance of this anniversary, all veterans, all veterans' organizations, and the entire citizenry will wish to join hands in the common purpose. Toward this end, I am designating the Administrator of Veterans' Affairs as Chairman of a Veterans Day National Committee, which shall include such other persons as the Chairman may select, and which will coordinate at the national level necessary planning for the observance. I am also requesting the heads of all departments and agencies of the Executive branch of the Government to assist the National Committee in every way possible."
The word sacrament is usually defined in terms of its religious or theological meaning, but the word has a meaning in the temporal and secular world as well. In religious terms, a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward grace. In other words, it is something that is tangible in the physical world that reminds us of something that exists in the spiritual world. I am using it in a similar way to apply to a celebration (something tangible in the physical world) that brings to mind something that is more than simply a celebration (something that exists in the spiritual world). Once we think of special days as sacraments, instead of just a day of celebration, those days take on a special or sacramental meaning to us.
I read a meditation this morning about Veterans Day from a Christian blog that went off into explaining how, while Veterans Day is about honoring our veterans, it is really about honoring all the heroes in our lives, and it used two women, Lois and Eunice, Timothy’s grandmother and mother as examples of this. These women sacrificed to give Timothy an education in the Scriptures so the author of this meditation opined that we should use this day to remember the heroes in our own lives. Well, no, because to do so destroys the sacrament of this day.
Veterans Day is a special day to pay honor to those who have served the United States, and all of its citizens, by being in the military and defending the foundations of freedom and liberty — the very foundations upon which was built the United States of America. It is not a day to honor all of those who are special in our lives. It is a day to honor those living and dead who sacrificed their lives, or a part of their lives, so that all people can be free. To do otherwise cheapens transforms the sacrament into something it was never intended to be. It’s not “Heroes Day.” It is “Veterans Day.” I think we should leave it at that and stop trying to be “relevant” for today. It is what it is, and it is not what it is not.
Not all sacrifices in war require the ultimate sacrifice of life. I am a Vietnam vet. While I did not sacrifice my life by dying, I did, nonetheless, sacrifice my life. I had to put my normal life on hold while I went off to war in a foreign country. My wife was left behind to await my return, and to wonder if I would return. Her life was put on hold, too. My hopes and dreams had to wait until I returned to my normal life. When I first entered service in the Army my income dropped from $550 per month to $96 per month. Was that a sacrifice? You bet! But, there were many other sacrifices — separation from my family, isolation in a strange place, danger of being killed, sleeping on the wet ground, eating things that I don’t even want to mention, watching people die right beside me, and so many other big and little things. These are the sacrifices of a soldier, and they were not unique to me. All veterans have their own stories. So, when you see a veteran this Veterans Day, realize this person has been through hell for you and thank them. I was a civilian again for 30 years before the first person said thank you to me for my service — and it made me cry!
Since we have “Memorial Day” on which we remember those who have died in combat serving this country, perhaps we on Veterans Day we should remember those veterans who served and survived, who walk among us. On this Veterans Day, find a veteran and shake his or her hand and thank them for their service. When you look in the eye of combat veteran you are likely to see a lot of conflicting emotions when you do that — gratitude that someone thinks what they did was worth the effort to thank them, a flicking memory of their experience in war, the horror of watching a comrade fall dead at their side, and, at the same time, a peace and joy that only comes on the other side of war.