Dr. Dean G. Blevins
Director, Master of Arts in Christian Formation and Discipleship Degree
One of the privileges of being at NTS is to eavesdrop on “social media” conversations that involve a large number of former and current students. Recent reflections revolved around the conundrum here in the United States of Pentecost and Memorial Day falling on the same weekend. I am always impressed at the explicit Christian considerations of this moment. We know God’s mission is bigger than the United States. One reason we are part of a global church effort entails our recognition of the fact the church cannot be contained by national boundaries alone. Yet the church is to follow the mission of God both globally and locally, so what do we do?
Most of those participating online remarked that Pentecost takes precedence. In my own local congregation, the pastor, an NTS graduate, chose to recognize both military service and particularly the memory of those saints whose service in the church ended this year in death. Yet the pastor elected to have this moment of recognition the week prior to Memorial Day/Pentecost Sunday to clear space for our recognition of the power of God in the Holy Spirit at Pentecost on the appropriate Sunday.
Other online members of the discussion suggested similar strategies including moving Memorial Day events away from morning worship (following a lunch or another service) or mentioning those who died appropriately during the pastoral prayer. Others moved the Church of the Nazarene tradition of recognizing saints who have passed on (started first on Memorial Day to raise support for missions) to a different Sunday in the fall, All Saints Day, to offset the negative message of Halloween. Each of these strategies attempt to help God’s people recognize the Christian story through worship while also acknowledging many such people live in a world which includes other national narratives that involve their lives, pain and struggle (and the death of loved ones). I remember poignant moments when veterans of another complex and troubled war for the United States, Vietnam, returned with no place to share pain and suffering. Young people returning from places of foreign conflict need moments of healing and wholeness in local churches right alongside those in the same global settings, who are equally victims of war, need the church to be a center of hope and redemption.
As much as I oppose turning morning worship into a national rally for any nation, we must recognize that the church ministers in a complex and diverse world; thus we have to move to pastorally engage those who have lost friends and loved ones in hostile engagements not of their own making. Perhaps we should not adopt simplistic answers of either merely ignoring Memorial Day, or embracing unreflective patriotism that conflates God with a national agenda. Perhaps we can see such national holidays as moments to critically and creatively offer the promise of the resurrection for those whose lives are inadvertently marred in such violent times. William Cavanaugh, in his book Migrations of the Holy (2011), argues that the church occupies a different “space” than national ideologies (55-63). However, that public space remains complex and often the church’s message must work through the complexity by offering a contrast, a dissonance, to national pride and exclusivity (63-68).
Thinking about Pentecost and Memorial Day on the same Sunday might have been a way to think about the Cross. Perhaps any conflation between these two holidays should involve both the celebration of the power of God in the Holy Spirit and also confession before the Cross of Jesus that we live in a world where the church must work around violence and pain instead of the Love of God. Such a posture would keep the church at least humble of our own triumphalism, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit lest we fall victim to relying on our own efforts rather than following Christ. Such a message might also provide a way for the church to redeem Memorial Day as a remembrance of what God will yet fulfill in Christ’s final return and reconciliation.
I am not sure if this is the “final answer” to the question of reconciling Memorial Day and Pentecost Sunday-probably not. I am thankful for current and former students, many now colleagues in ministry, who are willing to push beyond simple answers and live with a sense of theological integrity. In each case I know they have taken their preparation for ministry seriously, they are willing to wrestle with larger questions, and find everyday solutions that shape their ministry for the sake of those they serve.
Cavanaugh, William T. Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2011.