A blessed Memorial Day weekend, everybody. Tomorrow is, by some accounts, the 152nd Memorial Day celebration, “But for the earliest and most remarkable Memorial Day, we must (look to) Charleston, S.C. (in 1865).
“Whites had largely abandoned the city, but thousands of blacks, mostly former slaves, had remained, and they conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war…. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison. Union captives were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.
“After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston black workmen went to the site, reburied the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
A memorial “procession was led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses and singing the Union marching song “John Brown’s Body.” Several hundred black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantrymen. Within the cemetery enclosure a black children’s choir sang “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner” and spirituals before a series of black ministers read from the Bible.”1
The honor, love, and faith displayed that day was and is remarkable, and I’m happy to live in a place that still honors the heroes of all our conflicts. Both Ss. Matthew and Luke knew of a Roman centurion worthy of honor, and they included his story, which we heard today.
“Jesus walked down… to Capernaum, his adopted home. When he entered the town, he was met by a small delegation of Jewish elders. They had an urgent request. There was this Roman centurion whose servant was so sick that he was expected to die shortly. The centurion had asked these elders to go to Jesus on his behalf to see if Jesus might be willing to heal his servant.
“Now, this was very unusual. Jewish leaders were not in the habit of being fond of Roman soldiers. Feeling the obvious oddness of the request, one of the elders quickly added, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” This was also unusual. Roman soldiers were not in the habit of being fond of Jews.”2
One of the things I just adore about this story of the centurion is that while his faith is evident, it’s his humility that strikes Jesus, makes Him take particular notice. “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come into my house.” We’ve heard a lot of humility over the last few weeks, from Isaiah practically crawling under a rug when we found himself in the presence of God to Solomon making supplications before the altar of God to our centurion today. So much of what we have heard has made it into our liturgy: the song of the angels heard by Isaiah, Holy, Holy Holy; we’ve taken the humble and fearful words of Isaiah and the remedy of his shame, and made it the prayer of the priest of deacon who will proclaim the Gospel at the Mass, “Cleanse my heart and my lips, Almighty God, as thou didst cleanse the lips of the Prophet Isaiah with a live coal”; and today the words of the centurion: “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof, but speak the word only and my servant (soul) shall be healed”.
Again, the common element here is humility, which seems to be the foundation, the starting point, of real faith, of knowing where honor is to be placed, to knowing our place. Four of our Church School children are about to receive the Blessed Sacrament for the first time. They have taken a path of humility, because the path to the altar rail must be taken on our knees, knowing that the Lord rewards the humble. Like our centurion today, we are not worthy to receive our Lord, but we approach nonetheless, knowing that our Lord always has mercy on those who seek Him.
This Memorial Day, remember and pray for our honored dead, those who gave their lives in humble service to our nation and our God.
1David W. Blight, Forgetting Why We Remember, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/30/opinion/30blight.html