By Jonathon Van Maren
Anyone who has walked the Normandy beaches will agree that it is a profound and moving experience. It is solemn to stop and listen to the eternal lapping of the waves that once washed up onto the sand crimson with the blood of young men who gave their lives, so many of them barely begun, to liberate strangers—including my grandparents. To see the thousands of pure white gravestones, standing sentinel over the spots where the warriors sleep in crisp rows. The mindboggling sight of the sheer cliffs that were scaled by farm boys and factory workers and men too young to know what they would have done if they hadn’t ended up here, the tip of the spear flung by Christian civilization at the Nazi beast.
Today marks 75 years since D-Day, and still some of the men who survived the bloody slog up the steel-swept beaches are with us. Listening to the live-cast from Juno Beach on my way into work this morning, I heard the rousing cheers of men, women, and children as the veterans walked by, waving tearfully as they receive the gratitude that they so richly deserve. The Greatest Generation is almost gone now, and I am keenly aware when I look at my little daughter that she will probably never hear the stories of the men and women who lived through that inferno first-hand. Slowly, the events of the Second World War are fading from memory into history. We should treasure these commemorations while those we are honouring are still here to receive our thanks.
It is easy for our post-Christian societies to forget that the men who surged up the beaches were buoyed by the prayers of distinctly Christian nations. In the city of Calgary, Alberta, 15,000 people gathered to pray that day. From the Calgary Herald on June 6, 1944:
Canadians throughout the land bowed in prayer today for the success of Allied arms in their march of liberation into Europe. And in Calgary nearly fifteen thousand crowded silently into one block of 1st St. W. between 7th and 8th Aves. to stand with bared heads while representatives of Church and State evoked God’s blessing upon the men who are storming Hitler’s citadel of evil.
It was a solemn and magnificent sight as that mass of people — the largest in Calgary’s history ever to be so grouped together — listened in cathedral silence to the prayers for their men-at-arms on the seas, on the land, and in the air. And many thousands of that great and solemn crowd, there is no doubt, directed their own private prayers to loved ones who at this moment are offering their lives that the world may be freed and that their homes may endure…
(After prayers and scripture reading) there followed one minute of silent prayer as a deep hush fell over the entire crowd standing with bowed heads…Singing of two hymns, “O God Our Help In Ages Past” and “Abide With Me,” was included in the service.
And then there was the prayer offered up by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that same day 75 years ago, who asked that the American people join him in a day of “continuous prayer” for those who fought on their behalf:
My Fellow Americans:
Last night, when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our Allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation. It has come to pass with success thus far.
And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:
Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.
Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.
They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.
They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest — until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.
For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and goodwill among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.
Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.
And for us at home — fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas, whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them — help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice.
Many people have urged that I call the nation into a single day of special prayer. But because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts.
Give us strength, too — strength in our daily tasks, to redouble the contributions we make in the physical and the material support of our armed forces.
And let our hearts be stout, to wait out the long travail, to bear sorrows that may come, to impart our courage unto our sons wheresoever they may be.
And, O Lord, give us faith. Give us faith in Thee; faith in our sons; faith in each other; faith in our united crusade. Let not the keeness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment — let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose.
With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogances. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace — a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.
Thy will be done, Almighty God.
These prayers were answered. Europe was freed by the sacrificial blood of thousands. And today, we should take a moment to remember them, and send up a prayer of our own.