In 1918, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month, a ceasefire was signed, called the Treaty of Versailles that brought World War 1 to an end. At the time, that war was referred to as “The Great War” or “The War to End All Wars.” The world breathed a huge sigh of relief, thinking at the time, there would never be such a conflict again. So November 11 was set aside in the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, and a few other countries, as Armistice Day. Originally, it was a day to celebrate peace and the final ceasefire. The parades and speeches of the era reflect that. And on the 20th anniversary of the end of World War 1, Armistice Day became a federal holiday. That was 1938, and the world teetered into war once again.
Armistice Day survived the Second World War, though not everyone knew what to do with it since lasting peace had not arrived but the atomic age had. But in 1953 the good folks of Emporia, Kansas referred to Armistice Day as “Veterans Day” in gratitude to the veterans of their town. Twenty years later, President Nixon declared November 11th as Veterans Day, the holiday we now have.
Other countries call the former Armistice Day – our Veterans Day – “Remembrance Day.” Across Europe, Canada, and Australia, ceremonies are held at the tombs of the unknown and other significant locations, to remember veterans, the dead of war, and often to pray for peace. Our Veterans Day has taken on a good deal of this “Remembrance Day” flavor, especially since the Vietnam War. Veterans of the great wars are declining in number and the installation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, that black wall of remembrance has had a profound effect on what we do with the holiday. There are fewer parades and speeches, and more times of reflection, prayer, and yes, remembrance.
In the Hebrew tradition, great emphasis is placed on the act – the communal act – of remembering. So many of the Jewish festivals – Yom Kippur, Passover, Hanukah – are festivals of remembrance. Jesus, a Jew, on the night he was betrayed took bread and broke it and said to his disciples, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The Hebrew word for remember is zekhor. It means more than bringing something up out of your memory. The word has a meditative quality about it. Focus your mind. Reflect upon it. And it carries this meaning: “Make it alive again.” For the Hebrews, remembering meant and means to resurrect the past and integrate it into the present.
On this Veteran’s Day, let us remember properly. Let us remember those who who have served, suffered, and have fallen. And let us quickly integrate this past into the present and future, praying and working for the day when war will be no more.