I didn’t grow up during the Great Wars of the last century when so many young people were called upon to die for our country, and I haven’t fought in a modern war either. As a church leader, I may not be the most qualified person to write about what the deaths of so many soldiers symbolize for Canadians today and why we should take the time to remember our fallen soldiers. I do believe, however, that their deaths should have meaning for each of us.
In the movie Saving Private Ryan, the true story is told of a young soldier trapped behind enemy lines in Normandy during the Second World War. This young man’s three brothers have all recently been killed in action and he is now the only child left of a single mother. When the U.S. Army’s Chief of Staff is informed of this horrible situation, he immediately dispatches a team of soldiers to search out Private James Ryan and to bring him back home alive.
Throughout the movie, this dangerous rescue mission claims the lives of many of the soldiers. At one point their captain says in utter frustration, “This Ryan better be worth it. He’d better go home, cure some disease or invent a longer-lasting light bulb.” Yet in spite of the numerous dangers these men face, they obey their orders.
In the final battle scene, a mortally wounded captain whispers his last words to a speechless Private Ryan: “James,” he says, “earn this—earn it.”
Earn it. Fifty years pass and in the final scene of the movie we see an elderly James Ryan returning to Normandy with his wife and family. He kneels at the grave of the officer who saved his life and tearfully says, “My family is here today. Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I’ve tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.” He then turns to his wife and says, “Tell me I’ve led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.”
In many ways, those two final words from the captain—earn it—left a deep scar over the rest of Private Ryan’s life. Could he ever live up to the expectations that the sacrificial deaths of those young men demanded? Could he ever earn what was given to him that day? Could any of us?
I don’t think we can ever earn what was given to us by the countless soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the society we inherited and enjoy today in Canada. We can, however, accept this gift and live our lives in a way that honours their deaths. They died so that we could live free.
In some ways, the sacrifices of these soldiers resemble the sacrifice of Christ’s broken body and shed blood on the cross. The difference, however, is that as Jesus died to rescue us from the sin and evil of this world, he didn’t say, “Earn it.” Instead, he said three very staggering words: “It is finished” (John 19:30). These are words of completion, much like a couple would say when they have finally paid off their 20-year mortgage or a builder might speak when he lays the final brick on a house. Because of Christ, our sins—all of them—are forgiven. We can’t earn this gift and we’ve done nothing to deserve it, but Christ died for us and now we can live in a new and wonderful way. This is God’s grace and it’s available for all of us if we accept it.
We don’t have the luxury of asking our fallen soldiers why they died for us and what they expect us to do with the sacrifices they made. I suspect, though, that if we could ask, they would tell us to accept their sacrifice for what it is—a gift—and make it count by living our lives to the fullest.
Christ expects the same. He died so that we could be truly free and, if the Son has set you free, you are free indeed. It is finished.
Captain Bramwell Pearce is the corps officer of Goderich – Suncoast Citadel.