Flag Day is one of those holidays that often gets lost. Few of us get vacation days from work or school. You don’t find a lot of parades for Flag Day or festivals. Sometimes I forget how important the flag is until some national tragedy occurs and I see it flown at half-mast.
When I was a boy we had a flag pole in front of our house and on certain holidays–like Flag Day–we raised and lowered the flag. My dad, a submarine vet of World War II, was very particular about our treatment of the flag.
“It should never touch the ground,” he said. When we lowered it, one kid held up the bottom of the flag while another unclipped it from the line. When we folded it we stretched it above the grass, flipping it back and forth so that it would make a tight triangle.
“It’ll burn if it touches the ground,” Dad said.
Did I really believe the ground would burn it? I don’t think so. It’s not like there were hot coals down there, but what Dad was trying to instill in us was respect for an object, not for the object itself but what it symbolized.
We take our hats off when the flag passes by–if we wear hats. We salute the flag. We put our hands over our hearts. Flags should never be flown at night unless they are lit or if they are flying over a specifically designated site. We fly the flag at half-mast as a symbol of our mourning.
We have symbols in our faith, the cross the most obvious one. The cross was so powerful a symbol that the Crucifixion didn’t appear in Christian art until several centuries after Christ’s death. The memory of actual crucifixions was too fresh in early Christian minds. To stare at a cross was to stare at a violent death.
The American flag is relatively recent symbol by those standards, adopted by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777. Commemoration of June 14 as Flag Day is even more recent, established by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, 100 years ago.
Symbols by themselves mean nothing. The flag is mere fabric, the cross is a bit of wood or metal. But when we let a symbol stand for something we honor the better parts of our human nature. When we say the pledge of allegiance “to the flag,” we are reminding ourselves of the values it represents. We do the same thing when we reverence the cross.
So when you see the flag today, pause for a moment. If you’re wearing a hat, take it off. Put your hand over your heart. Say a prayer for “one nation under God with liberty and justice for all.”
Hats off. It’s Flag Day.