Friday, June 08, 2007

A Few Thoughts At Arlington National Cemetery

This last week, our family was on vacation in Washington D.C. On our last day, we visited Arlington National Cemetery. I’ve been to the nation’s capitol twice. Surprisingly, this was my first extended visit of the cemetery. The place was beautiful, somber and serious. My family watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown. The ceremony was rehearsed. Every motion was planned. There was nothing spontaneous here. Nonetheless, every moment suggested respect and honor. Echoing Abraham Lincoln‘s words about another military cemetery, the dead laid here have consecrated this ground, “far above our poor power to add or detract.”

In the recent issue of First Things, Joseph Bottum has a fascinating article entitled, “Death & Politics.” It deserves reading and rereading. The topics range widely and subtly. Bottum is trying to grasp at something deep and mysterious. He concludes…
These are dangerous waters to stir to life, but without them we lack thickness, seriousness, and purpose in our political endeavors. We create true communities only when we have shared dead. Everything else is artificial, and adventitious, and temporary, and incomplete. This is a frightening truth, for the dead we share may be those we kill instead of those for whom we grieve. But dangerous or not, it remains the human condition.
Death may hold clues to our search for meaning. Unfortunately, we don’t see it. Our modern world tries to avoid death by cheating it or hiding it away. We idolize youth and youth culture, and we are unsure how to deal with the elderly. There is even now a movement in Europe called “anonymous death” where the dead are buried in unmarked graves without ceremony. In a world where madmen try to create meaning by spilling blood, we ignore the metaphysical role of death at our peril.

It’s interesting. I accept the notion of “substitutionary atonement.” Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins, taking my punishment. Our congregation will even sing, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” Still, I can understand those who are uncomfortable with the imagery. The whole thing sounds a bit gory. Nonetheless, if death and fear of death lie at the root of the human condition, the spilled blood of Christ makes even more sense. Jesus Christ experiences what is quintessentially human (at least in its fallen state), death. His sacrifice consecrates his life. By dying on the cross and rising again, Jesus destroys death’s grip on who we are.

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