Last week, I had the delightful privilege of touring the United Sates Capitol. It was my third visit, and each time I spend inside its ornate walls I am inspired to learn more about our American heritage. The Capitol is an architectural encyclopedia of our history, a treasure trove of America’s most precious jewels. Its grandiose paintings depict our greatest epochs. Its dignified statues bring our greatest heroes to life. And its intricate inscriptions memorialize the best of our ideals. In short, the Capitol is a monument, a memorial for all we have been, so that the living who walk its halls won’t forget from where they’ve come.
But that is not all. To not forget something is only half the reason for remembering. If those who daily pass by those grandiose paintings, dignified statutes, and intricate inscriptions simply acknowledge their existence, fondly saying, “Isn’t that magnificent!” then the point of them is lost. For what use is it to see that magnificent painting of the Signing of the Declaration of Independence unless it inspires the observer with new fervor to advance the ideas written in that document? What good does it do to simply see the faces of George Washington, James Garfield, or Dwight Eisenhower and say “aw yes, they were great men” unless the observer seeks to follow in those great men’s footsteps? When we see Patrick Henry’s words, “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided and that is the lamp of experience” above the doorway of room H120, do we agree with him? Do we draw from the experiences of our forefathers in shaping the course our nation now takes?
Today is another kind of memorial. It is a day set aside to pay tribute, as President Lincoln said at Gettysburg, to our “honored dead.” Throughout the land today, in cemeteries and in solemn ceremonies, the fallen men and women of our armed forces will be remembered. And so they should be, indeed they must be.
But I wonder. Just as with our Capitol. Remembering isn’t enough. There must be a reason for the remembering. There is no real honoring of our noble heroes if we do not continue the fight for which they laid down their lives. And what is that fight? I’ll let President Lincoln remind us:
It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which the who fought here, have, thus far, so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—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 reason for remembering is to inspire us to preserve and advance the freedom we have been given. Otherwise, our Memorial Day tributes are meaningless. Something tells me that those we honor wouldn’t want it that way.