Theologian’s Almanac for Week of May 26, 2019
Welcome to SALT’s “Theologian’s Almanac,” a weekly selection of important birthdays, holidays, and other upcoming milestones worth marking - specially created for a) writing sermons and prayers, b) creating content for social media channels, and c) enriching your devotional life.
For the week of Sunday, May 26:
May 26 is Memorial Day, a day honoring all those who have died serving their country. The brainchild of General John A. Logan, the first Memorial Day was in 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery, where members of both the Union and Confederate Armies were buried. Logan declared the day “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.”
May 26 is also the day the German monk Martin Luther was declared an outlaw and a heretic by the Edict of Worms in 1521. Paradoxically, the declaration ended up making Luther even more of folk hero than he already was, advancing his cause of church reform rather than hindering it. In 1517, Luther had published 95 theses criticizing church teachings and practices, in particular the sale of indulgences (said to decrease the time a person was required to spend in purgatory). As his ideas began to catch on - spread with help from a relatively new-fangled invention, the printing press - some of the powers-that-be began to worry, and pressured Charles V into calling a disciplinary assembly in the city of Worms. As Luther traveled to Worms in order to attend, he was greeted as a hero by the townsfolk along the way. By the time he arrived at the assembly, his resolve was set: “Here I stand,” he famously said, refusing to recant. “I can do no other. God help me!”
May 27 is the birthday of ecologist and nature writer Rachel Carson, born in Pennsylvania in 1907. The work for which she is best known, Silent Spring, became one of the most influential books in the rise of the modern environmental movement. She wrote, “There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings… Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change… On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of scores of bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”
The book was heavily criticized by the chemical industry, who set out to discredit Carson’s work and smear her reputation as a scientist. President Kennedy read Silent Spring in the summer of 1962, and formed a presidential commission to study the government’s use of pesticides. The commission vindicated Carson’s findings.
Her first love, however, was the sea, and she won the National Book Award in nonfiction for her best-seller, The Sea Around Us (1951). In her acceptance speech, she said, “The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction. It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science…. The winds, the sea, and the moving tides are what they are. If there is wonder and beauty and majesty in them, science will discover these qualities. If they are not there, science cannot create them. If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”
May 27 is also the birthday of suffragist and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, born in New York City in 1819, and the author of the lyrics to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Early one morning, she was inspired to write new, Christian lyrics to the tune of the marching song, “John Brown’s Body.” She called her new song “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and it was originally published as a poem in Atlantic Monthly. It became a sensation among Union soldiers and, later, among abolitionists. It’s said that Abraham Lincoln wept upon hearing it for the first time.
May 28 is the day President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law in 1830. In 1823, the Supreme Court had ruled that the white settlers' “right of discovery” superseded the Indians' “right of occupancy.” The Removal Act primarily affected five tribes: the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole nations of the southeastern United States. Approximately 100,000 people were forcibly marched thousands of miles - sometimes in chains - to lands west of the Mississippi, most of which had been deemed worthless by white settlers. The journey became known as “The Trail of Tears.” As many as 25% of the group’s men, women, and children perished along the way.
May 28 is also the birthday of Walker Percy, born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1916. During a bout with tuberculosis as a young man, he read Sartre, Camus, Dostoevsky, and Kierkegaard. After publishing some spiritual and philosophical essays, he had an epiphany: “The thought crossed my mind: Why not do what French philosophers often do and Americans almost never - novelize philosophy, incarnate ideas in a person and a place, which latter is, after all, a noble Southern tradition in fiction.” He won the National Book Award for The Moviegoer, in which the main character, Binx Bolling, goes on a spiritual and philosophical quest. Bolling says, “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”
May 29 is the Feast of the Ascension, commemorating the story in Acts when Jesus withdraws from the disciples, ascending into heaven (Acts 1:6-11).
May 29 is also the birthday of G.K. Chesterton, born in London in 1874. He’s best known for his stories featuring Father Brown, a crime-solving priest who appears to be ignorant, clumsy, and absent-minded, falling asleep during police interrogations, and so on - but who in fact knows more about crime anyone else in the stories, including the criminals. Chesterton invented the character when he converted to Catholicism and realized that Catholic priests, who hear confessions all day long, are veritable experts in depravity. He was remarkably prolific, and theology animates much of his work; his biography of St. Francis, for example, is a delightful classic. One of his signatures is to express serious ideas with a twinkle in his eye. “Thieves respect property,” he wrote. “They merely wish the property to become their property, that they may more perfectly respect it."
May 30 is the day the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in 1922. The structure was modeled on the Parthenon; a defender of democracy, the architect said, should be remembered with an homage to the birthplace of democracy. The marble and granite came from Massachusetts, Colorado, Georgia, Tennessee, Indiana, and Alabama, to symbolize a divided nation reconciling in order to build something together.
And yet, divisions persist. A crowd of more than 50,000 attended the dedication ceremony that day - but though Lincoln was known as the Great Emancipator, the audience was segregated, and keynote speaker Robert Moton, president of the Tuskegee Institute and an African-American, wasn’t permitted to sit on the speakers’ platform. 41 years later, on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech from the Memorial steps.