On February 19, 1945, American Marines stormed onto the beach at the tiny volcanic island of Iwo Jima. In the grand scheme of things, this little dot in the Pacific amounts to very little, but in the ways of strategy, it could not be left in Japanese hands as the American juggernaut moved inexorably toward the Japanese home islands and the close of the war.
In Washington, D.C. (or actually just across the river in Virginia), the Marine Memorial captures in bronze the iconic photograph of six of those Marines raising the flag atop the island’s only landmark, Mount Suribachi.
I’ve had occasion to think about that battle and that statue recently after speaking with a veteran of the fighting. As I’ve reflected on it, it occurred to me that there’s an important lesson to be taken from the memorial.
First, we have to recognize that those six Marines had no idea that they were making history to quite the extent that they were. Three of them would not survive the struggle for the island. I’m sure all of them knew that they were involved in something significant, but did they realize that this would probably be the most celebrated moment of their lives?
Second, that statue catches the Marines in mid-motion. There’s another photo snapped a bit later by the photographer, Joe Rosenthal, showing the erected flag and Marines standing around saluting, but it’s not the one that earned the Pulitzer Prize. It’s not the one that fires the imagination. The struggle seems to be captured in that photo, and the struggle almost always seems more interesting than the aftermath.
However, that flag in Washington will never be fully raised. For 63 years it has remained at precisely the same angle, always yearning toward but never reaching its final position. That statue locks six men and a flag in time, potentially forever.
My friend who survived the battle–in fact, who survived five combat landings without receiving a Purple Heart–understands that while the events on Iwo Jima might be the most exciting and historically significant part of his life, he cannot remain locked in time like those statues.
When I think over my life, I can point to some moments that, if not statue-worthy, are certainly moments of some glory, the exciting times when I felt as if I might be performing the most significant work of my life. Hopefully you have those moments as well, but we would both be foolish to allow ourselves to latch on too firmly to our glory days.
As believers, we understand that the “flag” of our faith will never be fully raised under our power, and our glory days will pale when compared with the day of Christ’s triumph. Until then, we need to be, Marine-like, semper fidelis, always faithful. We need to strive to lift high the banner of Christ, keeping faith with those who have come before and still striving into the future.
The day will come when the end result will be far more exciting than the struggle. But until then, let us stand firm.