The language of ancient Greece has a term called martyr. In its original context two thousand years ago, it meant “witness” or “testimony.” To be a martyr was to offer a witness of one’s most sacred values. In the ancient Mediterranean after the time of Christ, the term was used to describe early Christians who would testify to the power of God through Christ in their lives. But because early Christianity was an unpopular and minority faith, the message of Christ was not usually received with ease. Early Christians were persecuted and killed for their beliefs. It was then that martyr took on a second meaning, that of our English word “martyr”: someone who dies or sacrifices of oneself for that which one believes in.
On Memorial Day, we remember many who have sacrificed for what they believe in. We hear the names of military personnel who died in the line of duty. We see in uniform around us the veterans who served and who may carry lifelong wounds to show for it. Those living and dead who are remembered on Memorial Day matter not simply because they live or have died. What we celebrate and remember is the way they died for the higher ideals of this country.
The underlying virtues of America, our reason for emerging as a separate country, are our commitment to freedom, equality and justice for all people. Devoted faith in these ideals is what calls people to military service, and it forms the bedrock of all that happens when one is in uniform. To be sure, these values are not always what results from military action, and the people who sacrifice therein are not always martyrs. But insofar as freedom, equality and justice are the underlying motivations for service to the country, we can call martyrs those who are remembered on Memorial Day. They are martyrs in the second sense of the term, because they sacrifice their best years, their health or their very lives for the sake of these transcendent values.
We who gather around and remember veterans on Memorial Day are martyrs in the first sense. We are witnesses who hold to the same important ideals for which these veterans have lived and died. We receive the testimony of their service, and we remember it again in this season in order to amplify the virtues they stood for. When we remember our military personnel on Memorial Day, we claim the virtues and faith that inspired them as our own. Indirectly or directly, by remembering them we also commit ourselves to the same values for which they gave their lives. We are called by our faith in these higher ideals of freedom, equality and justice to remember all who serve and die for them. This is what it means to hold such virtues dear, and to bear witness to them.
Before closing, I cannot help but note that these virtues I have mentioned are not just good ideas that come to us courtesy of the Enlightenment three hundred years ago. Rather, they emerge from the very heart of God, who undergirds the finest things that human beings everywhere, including in our country, are striving for. Freedom, justice and equality are God’s will for the entire earth. Insofar as we value these core principles as a country and work to expand them within and outside our borders, we participate in God’s coming realm on earth.
The God who watches over the sparrows of the air and the grass of the field holds dear every life that has been given or lost. God watches over all, grieves at loss and death, and sustains the values we hold dear. So we commit all those we remember and give thanks for on Memorial Day to the grace of God. Their sacrifices as martyrs have given us the chance to martyr, to bear witness and testimony to the power of transcendent ideals in our own lives. Wherever we go and whatever we do, if we seek to expand freedom, justice and equality, we pass on the same passion that we honor in our veterans. In so doing, we place our trust in God, who takes the best of what we offer in the witness of our lives, and makes of it a better future for all.