Memorial Day began as a commemoration of Union Army soldiers who had died during the American Civil War. Its reach in recognition and memory later extended to the Confederate Army dead, eventually to all who have died in military service, and even beyond that to civilian family members who have died—a secular All Souls Day. Since then Lincoln’s Address at the Gettysburg battlefield cemetery is read at civic Memorial Day services.
Lincoln began by saying that the United States as a new nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He concluded by calling on his audience to rededicate themselves to America’s founding ideals: “That we here highly resolve . . . that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom-- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
The new birth of freedom that followed our Civil War was fitful and by no means has yet been fully accomplished—our nation is still a work in progress. And we argue over the meaning of “freedom.” I think that what Lincoln was urging and hoping for was not just freedom in the sense of my being able to do whatever I want whenever I want. That is license, not freedom. Rather, what Lincoln seems to have meant by “freedom, under God” is akin to what St. Augustine had meant long before. In a meditation Augustine said that Jesus is “the master whom to serve is perfect freedom.” Later this reference to perfect freedom was included in a collect in the liturgy in Rome and that collect’s translation by Archbishop Cranmer appears in the service for Matins in the English Book of Common Prayer: “O God who art the author of peace and lover of concord . . . whose service is perfect freedom . . .”
St. Augustine understood that true freedom, perfect freedom, is to do what Jesus wants for us to do—love God and our neighbor, pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Now we face a pandemic that is resulting in death and suffering on a scale similar to that of war. On this day of national remembrance and reflection let us pray for all who have died in the past and give thanks for the sacrifices they have made for us. Let us also pray for all those in the pandemic who are sick or in other kinds of distress. Let us give thanks and pray for the safety of those who are caring for our fellow citizens who are suffering. And let us pray for the future of our nation as a whole, that, in the midst of our present troubles, God may bring about good—a new birth of freedom. Perfect freedom.
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is a retired priest of the Diocese of Washington