Thursday, May 28, 2009
The Preacher’s Corner
‘Ebenezer’ is for remembering
Belle Strickland was a little girl in Holly Springs who grew up during and after the Civil War. Some will remember her family home, that stood where the Catholic Church is now located on Van Dorn Ave. It was a two-story white-painted frame mansion, set back from the street, that looked something like the old McCrosky Place on College Ave., the Finley House by the high school, or even the O’Dell Place at Chulahoma.
Belle kept a diary, and in her diary she gives one of the oldest accounts of what Southerners used to call ‘Decoration Day,’ the day which, since it has become a nationwide observance, we now call Memorial Day.
Decoration Day is said to have originated in Columbus, at that city’s Friendship Cemetery, on April 26, 1866, when people came to decorate the tombs of loved ones lost in the Civil War. Belle’s diary lets us know that the day was being marked in Holly Springs shortly thereafter.
In early times, the date varied from town to town — generally later the further north one went — probably so that the spring flowers would be in full bloom, so as to provide an ample supply for decorating the soldiers’ graves.
Ceremonies such as the one Belle describes took place all across the country, for both Confederate and Union dead, but as Charles Reagan Wilson has noted, “Every time a Confederate veteran died, every time flowers were placed on graves on Southern Memorial Day, Southerners relived and confronted the death of the Confederacy.”
One Southern woman compared her sisters to the biblical Mary and Martha, who “last at the cross and first at the grave, brought their offerings of love.”
According to Belle Strickland’s diary for May 27, 1868, “Saturday was the day appointed to decorate the soldiers’ graves. At four o’clock I went to the graveyard, and when I got up on the hill, and saw the flowers reflected in the setting sun, the place looked perfectly radiant. I hardly ever saw anything so beautiful.”
Belle refers to our Hill Crest, of course, which did not yet have its beautiful and evocative name. That came from Helen Craft Anderson, who suggested the name in 1905, recalling a line of poetry:
“Just Beyond the Hill Crest, Lie the Plains of Peace.”
In Bible times, the idea of remembrance was powerful. It was no sentimental gesture. To the Hebrews, as G. Henton Davies has remarked, “The recollection of the past meant that what was recalled became a present reality.”
The Hebrews were always building memorials to great events. Usually made of piled up stones, they were called Ebenezers (from the Hebrew word eben for stone.)
For you trivia buffs, this explains the line in the hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” that reads: “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’ve come.”
You will still see piles of stone heaped up in the Judean desert, tempting the mind to speculate whether they commemorate some long-ago notable happening, perhaps even the Exodus itself.
To erect a “memorial,” as a modern Bible translation might put it, was done because memory plays such a powerful role in religion and in life. To lose one’s memory is, in a very real sense, to lose track of who we are, and that is why we fear such loss perhaps more than death itself.
I have told you, whimsically, that it seemed my childhood pastor in Cleveland, Dr. Bolling, was always preaching upon Psalm 103: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits.” The theme was “Forget Not,” and it was apt. The Bible is full of exhortations to remember.
To remember, in the Biblical sense, is to know. Not only does to remember mean to commemorate, but to remember creates a reality that controls the will. To remember determines the behavior and the destiny of him who remembers.
I cannot pass a Memorial Day without thinking of my own grandmother, my mother’s mother, who always called it Decoration Day. We were not great visitors of the cemetery, but my grandmother insisted on going to Missouri where my grandfather and all their families were buried for as many Memorial Days as she could.
Although I was very small I remember at least two such visits. Once we drove up in my aunt and uncle’s new yellow Cadillac. It was canary yellow — a 1957 model, I think — with fins.
Memorial Day is by all accounts a day when we think of those who have made great sacrifice on our behalf. It is a day when what they did is real to our lives. We are free because others gave everything they had. Ours is a nation, “conceived in liberty,” and that liberty is ours, because sons and daughters of America have been willing across the centuries to make it so.
It is a time to rededicate ourselves to the best ideals of our country, to remember that if we are “one nation under God,” that we will not rest until we are also a people “with liberty and justice for all,” and to pray with Christ for the day of which Isaiah spoke, when “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb,” and they “shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
Last Monday was Memorial Day and I did not visit the cemetery. Like so many others I was preoccupied with other things.
But as I write these words echoes of the old sermon and my grandmother’s visits to Missouri come flowing back. “Forget Not!” It is the greatest temptation of all.
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