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Monday, May 27, 2013

Of others there is no memory (Memorial Day 2013)

This morning, we celebrate a mass at St. Anne for Memorial Day - a mass of resurrection for all those, especially friends and family members, who died in war. Here are the songs we're going to sing:
Entrance: Be Not Afraid Bob Dufford
Psalm 23: My Shepherd is the Lord Joseph Gelineau, SJ
Communion: No Greater Love J. Michael Joncas
Going Forth: Eternal Father, Strong to Save

As a matter of policy, I try to avoid too much hullabaloo about national holidays on Sundays, especially this one, which often falls during the Easter season (not this year). At first, because people were accustomed to something different, and because some priests can't resist bringing some patriotic or holiday fervor to their homily, I used to get a lot of grief because we didn't sing patriotic songs at Sunday mass when Monday was a holiday. Over the years, as people understood that I wasn't anti-American, but I was just for liturgy that was catholic (i.e., universal, and not offensive to Christians in other countries, worshipping the one God), people have warmed to the different approach, so we generally are able to use a votive mass for civic observances or some such on holidays.

In the case of Memorial Day, we generally use texts from the Order of Christian Funerals, which has a wealth of prayers for different occasions remembering the dead. One scripture that doesn't appear there is a text from Sirach 44 that I use for the first reading. I think it was set to music by Vaughn Williams, and I remember that a fellow musician I knew in college had attempted to set it to music as well. It has so many wonderful thoughts in it that seem appropriate to the day, so I pair it with John 15 ("there is no greater love than this..."):
Let us now sing the praises of famous men,

our ancestors in their generations.

The Lord apportioned to them great glory,

his majesty from the beginning.

There were those who ruled in their kingdoms,

and made a name for themselves by their valor;

those who gave counsel because they were intelligent;

those who spoke in prophetic oracles;

those who led the people by their counsels

and by their knowledge of the people's lore;

they were wise in their words of instruction;

those who composed musical tunes,

or put verses in writing;

rich men endowed with resources,

living peacefully in their homes--

all these were honored in their generations,

and were the pride of their times.

Some of them have left behind a name,

so that others declare their praise.

But of others there is no memory;

they have perished as though they had never existed;

they have become as though they had never been born,

they and their children after them.

But these also were godly men,

whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten;

their wealth will remain with their descendants,

and their inheritance with their children's children.

Their descendants stand by the covenants;

their children also, for their sake.

Their offspring will continue forever,

and their glory will never be blotted out.

Their bodies are buried in peace,

but their name lives on generation after generation.

The assembly declares their wisdom,

and the congregation proclaims their praise.


I'm particularly grateful today for two soldiers who did not perish in war, my mother's husband Kent Larson, who survived when the destroyer upon which he served in WW2, the U.S.S. Walke, pictured here, was torpedoed and sunk in 1942 in the battles around Guadalcanal. A third of the crew of the
USS Walke, 1942
destroyer was killed, but Kent was one of the survivors. Kent lost his battle with cancer in Safford, AZ, a few years ago, with my mom taking care of both of them, but he was a great blessing to my mom, loving husband for many years. I prayed for him today, and I hope you do too.

Of course, the other soldier is my son Joel, a Marine reservist, who was in country at the beginning of the second Iraq war, part of a bulk fuel unit supplying a line between Kuwait City and Baghdad. I'm very proud of Joel's service, and eternally grateful for his safe return. And I can't think of Joel without thinking of my friend Courtney's son Keefe, who is still a Marine officer, and who spent some months in Afghanistan this year, and Johnny Moran, who used to sing in my teen choir, and whose armored vehicle was the target of an IED a couple of years ago. Johnny, thank God, survived, and is doing well. 

I also remembered today Stephen Hepner, related to me only by marriage. He was the brother of my Uncle Tom's wife Eleanor, and also a Marine. He died in Vietnam in 1967, just over 44 years ago. He is mentioned in one of the key chronicles of the early part of the war, The Hill Fights: The First Battle
2nd Lt. Stephen Hepner
of Khe Sanh
, by Edward F. Murphy (ISBN-13: 9780739303290). There is a memorial to him on the "Virtual Wall" here. In part, this is what it says about him, and his death:



The 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, had been in and out of Khe Sanh area several times during the spring of 1967, participating in the famous "Hill Fights" in the mountains surrounding Khe Sanh Combat Base. They were "in" during the latter part of April, and on 30 April lost 17 men in a bitter engagement with the North Vietnamese Army on the jungled slopes of Hill 881 South. 3rd Bn, 3rd Marines lost 27 more in the battle. Two days later 3/9 had another loss - 2nd Lt. Stephen Hepner was shot and killed while leading his platoon in the area of the 30 April fight.

I am reminded today that, however we might feel about the morality of this or that war or the men who commit young men and women to fight them, those who actually do the fighting have often very little choice in the matter. Of course, in wars of many generations, there was a draft, so people were "randomly" selected to fight. Others are forced by economic necessity, or risking a better future for themselves and their families, to enlist in the armed services in order to get the benefits offered to soldiers. It thus falls to us to honor the sacrifices they make, especially when that sacrifice is that of their life, health or limb, and to keep the promises made to them at enlistment for health care and education benefits. While the wars themselves might be necessary evils to overcome greater evils, or reprehensible incursions begun out of greed, vengeance, economic imperialism, or just paranoia, most who actually fought and died did so out of a sense of duty, hope, and honor. 

So Stephen, thank you, and thanks to all who gave their lives in order that others might live. Thanks to those who have given their lives as well in the cause of peace and non-violence. Thanks to those who served honorably and came home to build the country, like Kent and Joel. Thanks to those who refused to serve and gave witness to peace, like my brother-in-law Gary. Old as I feel this week when I will celebrate my 61st birthday, I'm trying to exercise my fragile memory, and not forget the courage of those who risked everything for those whom they loved. That, at least, is something I would do well to learn, and assimilate into my soul. May I, and all of us, be willing to "give up our lives for our friends," and may our friends, those whom we love with the love of Christ, include our enemies and the poor. It seems to me that only in this way will we ever beat our swords into the blades of plows, and finally study war no more.