I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away. —Percy Bysshe Shelley
The Pentagon in Washington, DC is not exactly a hot tourist attraction. For one thing, you don’t just saunter in and make yourself at home—as you might expect from a place full of powerful people and dark secrets, if they let you in at all, it’s because you’ve been invited. If you get past the heavily-armed guards, you won’t find marble floors, soaring columns or domed ceilings. The Pentagon, headquarters to the world’s mightiest military force, is a somewhat seedy warren of claustrophobic offices, with exposed pipes, cracking plaster and a decorating scheme that dates to the Eisenhower administration.
All of which makes perfect sense: the Pentagon is no showpiece—it’s where the gritty work of running America’s military takes place.
Americans have a love/hate relationship with the place. For those who see the military as the guarantor of American freedom, it evokes pride. For those to whom the military is an instrument of American imperialism, it elicits anger.
In a nondescript, almost hidden corner of the first floor is a solemn memorial that rises above the politics of militarism, a place where I suspect most of us could put aside our political differences and share in a moment of quiet reverence. At the exact spot where American Airlines flight 77 pierced the building and exploded on September 11, 2001, a permanent memorial has been created to the men and women whose lives were cut short that day. The names of the dead are etched deeply in black marble slabs, and nearby, a silent chapel invites visitors to sit and reflect.
There are many such places in and around our nation’s capitol, from the slashing wound of the Vietnam memorial, to the rolling Arlington hillsides planted in row after row of marble crosses, to the crypt-like temple where a mournful Lincoln sits, forever weighed down by the burden of a nation at war with itself.
On a recent desert hike, my daughter and I came across a montage of ancient petroglyphs scratched onto the face of a massive boulder. Historians know very little about the people who created these images. Their graffiti—a great horned owl, the sun, a spiral, some stick figures—is just about all that’s left of their civilization.
Petroglyphs, cemeteries and monuments to fallen heroes all spring from our uniquely human need to remember, and to be remembered. We, too, walked this earth, they say. We, too, breathed this air. Don’t forget us.
Mortality seems wrong, somehow. Life, for all of its troubles, is full of wonder. At the end, it seems all too short—after all, the galaxies have burned for millions of years. Humanity is but a brief spark by comparison.
Jesus himself suffered the pains of mortality. He lived for only 33 years, and his ministry, all of it contained in the four, brief synoptic gospels, lasted a mere three years. Hours before his trial and crucifixion, knowing what lay ahead, his mind was not on his own brief life but on his friends, the disciples he had come to love. On that last night they met privately in a second-story room where Jesus struggled to help them understand and accept what was about to come, and what it all meant.
Dear children, how brief are these moments before I must go away and leave you! Then, though you search for me, you cannot come to me—just as I told the Jewish leaders. So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. —John 13:33,34, NLT (Jesus speaking)
Don’t be troubled. You trust God, now trust in me. There are many rooms in my Father’s home, and I am going to prepare a place for you. If this were not so, I would tell you plainly. When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. —John 14:1-3, NLT (Jesus speaking)
Then he took a loaf of bread; and when he had thanked God for it, he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “This is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” After supper he took another cup of wine and said, “This wine is the token of God’s new covenant to save you—an agreement sealed with the blood I will pour out for you.” —Luke 22:19,20, NLT (Jesus speaking)
Jesus created his own memorial on the evening before his arrest, and Christians ever since have remembered his death and resurrection by eating the communion meal.
God, too, created a memorial to honor Jesus. In the final moments of his life, suspended on the cross in agony, God watched and made an agreement, a new covenant with the human race, sealed in the blood of his son, Jesus. In an everlasting memorial to a father’s love, God forgave us of our wrongdoings and pledged to us his grace, mercy and love.
This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him. —John 3:16- 18, The Message (Jesus speaking)
It is tempting to try to create our own living memorial, to attempt to etch our names in history so that we will never be forgotten. We are afraid of oblivion. We fight against mortality and dream of a time when men and women might routinely live for hundreds of years. But in the end, we will all disappear. Mortality is woven into the very fabric of our lives. Great fortunes evaporate; great corporations fail; great monuments crumble—we cannot achieve immortality with the paltry strength of our own hands.
Immortality is a gift, one that God has already given to us—it is ours when we accept the resurrection that will come by faith in Jesus Christ. Salvation comes in no other way; no other name has been or will be given to us by which we can be saved, only this one. —Acts 4:12, The Message, (Peter speaking)
I once carved my initials in the trunk of a tree, but a storm toppled it over and termites devoured it. God carved my name onto the tree of life, and it will remain there for all eternity.