This Sunday is Pentecost and Memorial Day weekend, which creates a tension that puts many pastors in a tough spot. After a year of ministry, I am able to think more realistically and pastorally about civil religion in the local Church. Yet, I cannot bring myself to preach or make reference to this holiday on Pentecost.
The climax of late spring and early summer in the Church is Pentecost Sunday. We have reached the end of Easter, celebrated the Ascension of our Lord, and now receive the fullness of God’s promises as we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit among us. This is the height of our resurrection story! But Memorial Day throws a stick in our spokes and brings a halt to our celebration as our country stops to remember those who have died in the military. Remembering our loved ones surely is not a bad thing in and of itself. Still, it strikes me that Memorial Day will confuse our worship in a few ways—I’ll share two of them.
First, it’s confusing because we remember death, but we do not remember resurrection. This reminds me of the confusion created by the military ritual inside of the Christian service of death and resurrection. Don’t get me wrong; the military rituals are a nice gesture. The trumpets blow, the guns are fired, and the flag is folded. There is a sense of honor, pride, and even thankfulness. But the ritual ultimately falls short. It creates a shocking message: our country can ask you to die, but it cannot raise you from the grave. This creates a hopeless contradiction in the funeral—a kind of Stoic acceptance of death as a result of a courageously lived life. Is this really what we need to hear? I find myself patiently waiting to hear “Amazing Grace” played on the bagpipes. Conversely, Jesus asks us to die to ourselves that we might one day be raised. Pentecost should be joyfully proclaimed as the pinnacle of Jesus’ promise of resurrection and the recreation of the entire world.
Second, the nationalism inherent in Memorial Day gestures toward a negation of Pentecost. At the birth of the Church the Spirit descended and a multitude of nationalities were able to hear in their own language. This was a beautiful joining of differences. Pentecost is a time to celebrate our boundary-crossing faith that brings together ethnic/cultural/and socio differences. This Sunday we will celebrate that the Church did not force anyone into a specific mold or keep out differences. True worship takes place when our differences are joined together as when the God-man, Jesus Christ, joined humankind. Pentecost is certainly not a time for the Church to receive its identity from the state. But Memorial Day is a time to remember United States soldiers. How could we lift up and celebrate one nationality on this Sunday? I do not want to do anything that will move toward an “us—them” attitude on Pentecost.
In would be a nice gesture to remember our soldiers this Sunday, but it will ultimately fall short. We have the opportunity to proclaim that Jesus has ascended to the Father, but that Jesus has also keeps his promises. The Spirit is among us! The Spirit has descended upon us and is reversing the calamity of the Tower of Babel so that we may no longer be confused by our differences. There is trust instead of fear. There is clarity instead of confusion. There is peace instead of war. One day the Spirit will accomplish something that war cannot as our “dry-bones” rise from the grave.
I hope that my omission of Memorial Day will not be perceived as an insult, but as a means to create theological clarity in the context of worship on Pentecost Sunday.