The sentinel and his commander walked off in silence, leaving a third man behind to continue protecting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. People began speaking to one another softly now that the ceremony was over, but I was loath to break the spell. “Can we stay and watch it again?” I whispered to my dad, who was taking a dog-eared map from his back pocket.
“I’m okay with it if everyone else is,” he replied, looking at my mom and brother. Both of them nodded and sat down at the top of the steps to wait in the shade.
Arlington National Cemetery was just one stop among many on our family vacation in Washington, D.C., and not one I’d been particularly keen on seeing. What was there besides the endless sea of white marble headstones and perfectly manicured grass? But I’d followed dutifully behind my dad, who had always wanted to visit the place, and hoped he’d repay the favor by taking me—ever the bookworm—to the Library of Congress. That was before we watched the Changing of the Guard.
I had gotten used to silence while we walked the cemetery’s rows that afternoon, but the tomb was a hallowed place where decorum reigned supreme. The sentinels, dressed in pristine uniforms and white gloves, glided like wind-up toys at an even cadence of 90 steps per minute. And their every movement, from the heel clicks to the percussive inspection of the rifles, was done with the precision of a jewel bearing. I stood enraptured by it all, moved by a feeling my 13-year-old heart couldn’t quite put a name to.
At the time, four men lay buried at the site—one each from World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. (The soldier lost in the Vietnam War was identified in 1998, and his crypt now stands vacant.) What made these men so special? I wondered as I watched the entire process a second time. We were in a cemetery, after all, a place where more than 400,000 people had been laid to rest. Why was this quartet guarded around the clock, rain or shine, and treated with such pomp and circumstance?
It is as if God plucked our heartstrings when we were created, and the thrum sends us searching for the hand that prompted the sound.
It hit me when I read the words inscribed on the sarcophagus where the WWI soldier lay: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” These brave men lost their lives defending our country, but unlike their brothers- and sisters-in-arms buried nearby—under headstones bearing a name, rank, birth and death dates, religious affiliation, and branch of service—every distinguishing characteristic has been lost. The meticulous attention to detail and propriety extended to them was one small way to repay the debt. As one former Tomb Sentinel said, “I owe them perfection.”
Known and Unknowable
Our actions don’t always show it, but many people recognize that mankind is set apart from the rest of creation, and—though some might not say it in so many words—we are made in the image of God. This fact imbues us with great worth, and it’s why we’re motivated to honor the dead. It’s the reason we spend thousands of dollars to prepare them for burial, speak kind words over them, and tend their gravesites year after year.
It’s also the reason we’ll fight for the dignity of strangers. For instance, in my adopted hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, county developers diverted a road around a plot of land when it was discovered to be an early African-American cemetery. The decision delayed a much-needed street expansion and cost the county both time and money, but it was done with little hesitation or grousing. Something far more important was at stake.
As unique, beloved creations of the most high God, we know we were formed by someone greater than ourselves: the one who put eternity in our hearts. (See Eccl. 3:11.) The same was true of the Greeks, who made an altar “to an unknown God”—mostly to avoid offending any deity they might have accidentally overlooked. However, Paul praises their choice: “What you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things ... [We] grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:23-25, Acts 17:27).
We were formed by someone greater than ourselves: the one who put eternity in our hearts.
A fine word, grope. It means “to feel one’s way; to search, flounder, or cast about.” Oh mercy, don’t we do all these things as we muddle through our days? It is as if God plucked our heartstrings when we were created, and the thrum sends us searching for the hand that prompted the sound. That mysterious knowing is woven into sinew and bone. It is the “work of the Law written in [our] hearts” (Rom. 2:15), the feeling that tells us while “every house is built by someone … the builder of all things is God” (Heb. 3:4). Because of it, we who grope in earnest understand we were made for fellowship with Him, and to find the temple He’s built, we need look no further than our own head, shoulders, knees, and toes.
In Pensées, French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher Blaise Pascal writes, “All men seek happiness … What is it then that this desire … proclaim[s] to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace … The infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.” This “infinite abyss”—a God-shaped hole—isn’t cause for anguish. Rather, it is a blessing to those of us who have not seen and yet believed, for it compels us to pursue a deeper relationship with the eternal Father we know exists, the One who dwells within us (John 20:29). And better still, our yearning assures us we are known by Him. Even if death strips us of all we are—pilfering our names letter by letter with greedy fingers—we remain forever familiar to God.
Photograph by UIG via Getty Images