Assumption Catholic Church
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Fr. Joseph Chamblain, O.S.M.


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5/27/2018 Fr. Joseph Chamblain, OSM    


In 1967 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. Four Federal holidays were moved from their traditional date to a specified Monday. As I recall, few people objected to the change at the time. Shutting down a factory or workplace for one day in the middle of the week was not very efficient; and with a three day weekend, more people could travel. And, so, in 1971 Memorial Day moved from its original date of May 30 to the last Monday in May. Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend quickly became our cultural bookends to the summer vacation season.

Unlike the other three holidays that were transferred, the old date for Memorial Day had no historic significance. Some think May 30 was chosen precisely because it did not mark the date of any particular battle, treaty, or armistice. Others connect the original date to a French holiday commemorating the transfer of Napoleon’s remains from St. Helena to France. However, as a Southerner I have to point out the truth: You stole the idea from us. Memorial Day or Decoration Day began to be celebrated shortly after the Civil War in Mississippi and had become a holiday in most Southern states by 1866. It was not a political event but a day to bring flowers to the graves of soldiers who had died in the Recent Unpleasantness. In the South, Memorial Day was observed at the end of April, because that is when flowers first bloom in abundance. General Logan, the Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, on a visit to Virginia, observed the practice there and petitioned Congress to make Memorial Day a national observance. Because flowers bloom later in the North, Decoration Day was established at the end of May. 

In recent decades those who treasure the original meaning of Memorial Day have complained that in trading in May 30 for a long weekend we have lost the meaning of Memorial Day itself. Various veterans’ groups, including the VFW, have petitioned Congress to restore the May 30 date. Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, a World War II veteran, introduced a measure to return Memorial Day to May 30 every single year from 1987 until his death in 2012. The point is that visiting cemeteries where the war dead are buried is important for our nation. Such visits remind us that freedom is not free. Most of the soldiers who died in war did not die doing anything heroic in the narrow sense of the word and many did not serve voluntarily. Nevertheless, they died for love of their families and their fellow soldiers and for their country and for the cause of freedom, however imperfectly it is lived in our country today or any day. And as Jesus told us, there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Second, visiting graves of soldiers reminds us that in war there may be victors but there are no winners. Politicians may hatch grand plans for remaking the world in our image; but those who talk bravely are rarely the ones who end up acting bravely.

Let me close with some words spoken by future President James Garfield at Arlington National Cemetery on the first Memorial Day in 1868. Garfield was a Major General in the Civil War and would become the first President to be felled by gunfire: “I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung . . . . If each grave had a voice to tell us what its silent tenant last saw and heard on earth, we might stand, with uncovered heads, and hear the whole story of the war. We should hear that one perished when the first great drops of the crimson shower began to fall, when the darkness of that first disaster at Manassas fell like an eclipse on the Nation; that another died of disease while wearily waiting for winter to end; that this one fell on the field, in sight of the spires of Richmond, little dreaming that the flag must be carried through three more years of blood before it should be planted in that citadel of treason; and that one fell when the tide of war had swept us back till the roar of rebel guns shook the dome of yonder Capitol. We should hear mingled voices from the Rappahannock, the Rapidan, the Chickahominy, and the James, and solemn voices from the Wilderness . . . . Here now let them rest, asleep on the Nation’s heart, entombed in the Nation’s love.”

                                                    Fr. Joe   






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