“Rejoice and exult, because your reward is great in heaven.”
As you approach Arlington National Cemetery, your eye is naturally drawn to the thousands of crosses that cover hill after hill. But the focal point of this hallowed ground is the immense and impressive Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Tomb is guarded 24-hours-a-day and 365-days-a year by specially trained members of the 3rd United States Infantry known as “The Old Guard.”
The sight of that massive stone coffin is thrilling. The tomb’s grandeur and stark simplicity, its imposing location overlooking the capitol of our nation for which our soldiers died, the guard, standing tall, tense with his privilege, pacing with measured footsteps, exactly so many steps this way and then returning that way – the setting and the ceremony is both sober and striking.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a powerful sentiment. The Tomb contains the remains of unknown American soldiers from World Wars I and II, and the Korean War. The bodies of these unidentified soldiers, killed in the line of duty, were carried home to America, to rest in a simple but majestic tomb where a grateful people might give these men due honors. God alone knows the names of these soldiers. Yet any mother, whose boy had not returned from battle, might claim one as her very own son.
Yet, centuries before this proud nation heralded its unknown soldiers, the Catholic Church, that universal nation which is truly the Mystical Body of Christ, had set aside a day whereupon we might honor the heroes and heroines of God’s army. These are the men and women, the boys and girls who have won heaven by their holy and virtuous lives, but whose names are not written anywhere but in the Book of Life.
Day after day throughout the liturgical year, Holy Mother Church points to this saint and to that saint, to the names of all the heroes who have been entered on the roll of canonization, saints whose names are on the lip of every Catholic. But these saints are few when compared in number with the many who are now with God, the millions of sainted dead who have washed their robes in the Blood of the Lamb.
The Feast of All Saints is the day when these unknown saints are honored. It is the day of the unknown soldiers of God. They have safely reached their heavenly home. Their names are unknown to us, but God sees them face to face. Some might ask: “How did these unknown saints win heaven?” The answer is: “They heeded the words of Christ their leader and head. They heard the words of the Gospel: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers, the pure—for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’”
The Unknown Soldier in the Arlington cemetery deserves national honors as he gave his life for the defense of the nation. The unknown saints deserve heavenly honors are they gave their life for the King of Heaven. What makes heroes? Following orders! The Unknown Soldier obeyed the orders of his military leader. The unknown saint obeys Christ as his King and Commander! And just as soldiers come to serve in the armed forces from all walks of life, in like manner, the army of God’s saints comes from every corner—no one is excluded.
From time to time a special wreath is place by the president on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Today our Altars are bedecked with the relics of countless saints. We venerate these holy men and women who have shown us how to bravely fight the fight. The Unknown Soldiers at Arlington are clothed in impressive uniforms, but the unknown saints of God are clothed with sanctifying grace – a far more glorious apparel.
Just as a soldier is always on guard at the Arlington National Cemetery, pacing back and forth before the tomb of his fallen comrade, so the Priests of the Church, all over the globe, march back and forth before the Altar of God, literally 365 days-a-year and at every hour of the day, repeating the words of the Mass: Meménto étiam, Dómine… (“Be mindful, also, O Lord, of Thy servants and handmaids who are gone before us with the sign of faith and who sleep the sleep of peace”).