Veterans Day began as a commemoration of the end of World War I, a war both of my grandfathers fought in. In Britain the day is still called Armistice Day, the day of the truce that ended the brutal “Great War to end all wars.” People wear red or white poppies to honor veterans and those who died in the catastrophes of war.
And that bring me to the monuments with origins in the deepest mysteries of Christianity. Stay with me awhile on this:
The most famous of all monuments of the World War I era is outside of Whitehall, in London: A concrete monolith, which is still the focal point every November 11 of ceremonies remembering Armistice Day. The concrete memorial is called the “Cenotaph,” and its simple design was copied extensively throughout Britain and the United States (see photo at right).
In the years following World War I, cenotaph monuments to the dead sprang up throughout Europe and the United States. Now, nearly a century later, the enormity of the catastrophe is still hard to imagine: Nine million dead, 28 million wounded, 3 million widows and untold millions of children left without one or both parents.
Nearly every World War I-era monument in the U.S. is a copy of the cenotaph; many Civil War monuments that were erected in the 1920s, including in Charlottesville (the Stonewall Jackson monument near City Hall sits atop a cenotaph). The best known cenotaph in the United States is in Arlington National Cemetery, commonly known as the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”
The word cenotaph comes from the Greek: ceno for empty, and taph for tomb: The Empty Tomb of the Great War.
The symbolism of the cenotaph has its origins in Holy Saturday, the day following Good Friday when Jesus dies on the Cross. On Holy Saturday, Jesus descends into Hell, breaks open the gates and defeats the devil. On Easter, Jesus takes everyone with him to Heaven. Without Holy Saturday, Easter has very little to do with us. With Holy Saturday, we are part of the Resurrection. The cenotaph is the monument to the emptying of Hell itself.
How much easier it is for people to believe in death. We use death as the final solution to so many of our problems. We execute murderers and we send young men and women off to die in wars to settle differences among nations. We argue endlessly over abortion and assisted suicide, as if laws about those issues would somehow settle our deep-seated anxiety about death.
So why are we so shocked by the death of Jesus so long ago? Why care about one Jew who the world saw as a troublesome mystic who healed and preached and claimed to be “the son of God”? How is it that two millennia later the death of the One still holds us and transforms us? If all we get is one more death on Good Friday, it is not a very good Friday.
But we get two more days – the day of the Cenotaph and the Day of Resurrection: Easter.
Can we look through the door of Holy Saturday – into the Cenotaph – and see there is more than death but life? Can the death of the One help us to touch the death of millions? Can we truly find a way to end wars and bring heaven to earth? Where does the cenotaph bring us?