Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Reflections on Veterans Day (And Pentecost 22, Year C)

I caught sight of my neighbor Frank in the rearview mirror as I was driving out of the Wawa parking lot with my morning coffee. Frank is an incredibly charming guy. I’ve seen pictures of him when he was young, and he was dashingly handsome in his day. Today he’s rounder and bald, but he still has a gallant panache. I watched as he held the door for an elderly lady. In his elegant fashion, he made a deep bow as she passed by him. I’m certain this must’ve brought a smile to her face—a display of courtesy from the Sir Walter Raleigh of the Wawa.

I’ll bet that lady never suspected that, almost half a century before, that same polite man at the convenience store was bleeding to death on a hilltop in Vietnam.

Frank fought with 101st Airborne Division on a hill called Firebase Ripcord. Most of us never heard about Ripcord. After the carnage of “Hamburger Hill,” the Department of Defense decided to blackout all news of this battle. I’m sure they felt that the number of American casualties reported would depress the folks back home watching the war on the nightly news. The survivors of the Ripcord don’t like to talk about, either. For decades their fear, pain, suffering, and loss went unknown, and they went among us, carrying it all inside themselves, strangers in their own country.

The First Lesson for Pentecost 22, Year C (Job19:23-27a) seems rather insignificant for the Sunday before Veterans’ Day unless we wind the reading back to the beginning of chapter 19 and read Job’s eviscerating lament in its entirety. Job’s anguish, like the anguish of those who bear the psychic avulsions of any trauma—war, domestic abuse, bereavement—requires near-Shakespearean poetry to express the loneliness and outrage of one whose suffering goes unseen and misunderstood by others.

As America honors her veterans this weekend, it’s appropriate that we consider their heroism. As an Army Dad, I feel that any kid who puts on the uniform is a hero since, peace time or war, every member of our military faces some kind of risk to life or limb. But it’s also appropriate that we try to see beyond the uniform to the hidden pain. Not every vet suffers from PTSD, but so many have seen things they can’t un-see or have done things they can’t undo. So many of them know loss. So may have had relationships break up, have developed dependencies on drugs or alcohol, have been sexually assaulted, or have faced financial hardships simply because they have chosen to give back to a country that has given to them. Perhaps too few of us civilians are willing to see the tear hidden beneath the salute.

Veterans’ Day in the United States is observed on the Monday closest to November 11th. It was November 11, 1918 when the First World War—supposedly the “war to end wars”—ended with an armistice. The promised peace didn’t last long, so Armistice Day became Veterans’ Day. I think the date is appropriate as we in the Church celebrate it as the feast of St. Martin of Tours, the patron saint of soldiers.[i] Legend has it that Martin, a Christian cavalryman of the Roman army in the fourth century, came across a nearly naked beggar. Having no money to give the man, the soldier took his sword and cut his own cape in half, giving half to help keep the beggar from the cold. That night Martin saw the person of Jesus Christ in a dream. Christ was wearing the half-cape and praising Martin for his kindness.[ii] Martin was moved to resign from the army and take up religious life, ultimately founding monastic communities and becoming one of the early bishops of France.

Besides Martin’s military background, what I like about his story is his ability to see Christ’s sufferings in the sufferings of the beggar. This, I think illustrates Job’s lament. The pain we suffer which makes us feel so alienated from others and makes them shun us in spite of their better inclinations is not invisible to God’s eyes. We know that the one who justifies us lives, and that we shall see him one day.

I would hope that, as we consider our military veterans, we will try to look, as Martin did, a little deeper into the eyes of those around us. Maybe we can consider their inner pain and the memories they carry with them. Perhaps we will learn to see them with great empathy, patience, and respect.

A happy Veterans’ Day to you all. Glad you stopped by.

[i] Fun Fact: Medieval Catholic tradition had children named for the saint on whose feast day they were born.  On November 11, 1483 when the wife of a Saxon copper miner named Hans Luther gave birth to a bouncing baby boy, they naturally named him Martin.
[ii] See Matthew 25:36 and following. Fun Fact: Martin’s “little cape,” is, in Medieval Latin a capella. From this comes our English words “chapel” and “chaplain.”

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