In the spirit of the 4th of July, this post is my Catholic perspective on our military and the American flag as a symbol of sacrifice. Both of my grandfathers served in the Navy, and my older brother John is a doctor in the Navy and is stationed in San Diego right now on active duty. He has already served one deployment to the Middle East aboard the USS Kearsarge, so I have more reason than in the past to pay attention to everything military.
This time of year always comes as a stark reminder that our freedom is not free. We are faced with the sobering fact that most of us have never seen the cost of freedom up close. The closest to being in a war zone that most Americans (myself included) will ever get is probably from watching movies like The Hurt Locker or Lone Survivor. We owe our soldiers and their families a debt that we can’t possibly repay. They take on the hellish brutality of war so that we don’t have to, and in many cases, upon coming home their lives are never the same. For a real and emotional look at how fallen soldiers are brought back to the United States for burial, I suggest watching a movie called Taking Chance. It’s based on a true story and it won a Golden Globe and 6 other awards.
Memorial Day and Independence Day should feel familiar to any Mass-going Catholic—we are honoring people who sacrificed their lives to win freedom for others, and in doing so provided hope for a more peaceful future. At Mass we honor the perpetual Holy Sacrifice of Jesus as we kneel before the altar and the priest says at the consecration, “Do this in memory of me.”
As Catholics we are highly aware that the most important war is already won: “Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.” (Revelation 12:7-8). Behind every Adolf Hitler or Osama bin Laden there are demonic forces who want to malign and destroy as much of God’s creation as they can—demonic spirits that have already been defeated by Christ once and for all on the Cross.
In our secular culture today it is easy to lose our perspective on this spiritual battle that is going on behind the scenes.
Each of our brave fallen heroes has an eternal soul and is a martyr for our freedom. So, we should treat the American flag with utmost respect at all times. It is a symbol of their sacrifice, just as the crucifix is a symbol of Jesus’ ultimate Sacrifice. Only Jesus can take the symbol of the crucifix and make what is represents fully present at Mass—His own Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Eucharist. But on days like the Fourth of July, we can make present our soldier’s sacrifices by giving thanks for our freedom and honoring the flag.
Everyone knows that the stars and stripes stand for the 50 states and 13 original colonies, but in thinking about what the star-spangled banner means for our soldiers spiritually, two Bible passages came to mind.
First, in looking at the red and white stripes, Isaiah 53:5 struck me: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” The stripes of the flag, with a small stretch of the imagination, could represent Jesus’ scourging at the pillar and the blood and water that flowed from His side in His bloody martyrdom.
In looking at the stars, Revelation 12:1 came to mind: “And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” The woman is obviously the Virgin Mary, the crowned Queen of heaven and Queen of martyrs.
I know this may be a loose association, but the flag when put in this Biblical context becomes a symbol of the joy and sorrow, the glory and humiliation of Jesus and Mary’s martyrdom. In dying for peace and liberty, our soldiers share in the redeeming martyrdom of the King and Queen of heaven. I think that no matter what they believed, this selfless act of laying down their lives predisposes their souls to accept Jesus upon seeing Him face to face. This act of perfect love is no different than what St. Thérèse of Lisieux did—she made her entire life a series of little martyrdoms, as she wrote in her Act of Oblation to Merciful Love:
“In order to live in one single act of perfect Love, I offer myself as a victim of holocaust to your merciful Love, asking You to consume me incessantly, allowing the waves of infinite tenderness shut up within You to overflow into my soul, and that thus I may become a martyr of Your Love, O my God!
May this martyrdom, after having prepared me to appear before You, finally cause me to die and may my soul take its flight without any delay into the eternal embrace of Your Merciful Love.”
We all know where St. Thérèse went after she died, and we can only pray that we have the same courage to offer up our lives as all of the men and women in uniform who have gone before us have done, and in doing so bring glory to God and merit eternal life with them.