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Flag Day and the Power of a Symbol

Why honoring the flag is so important.


I remember as a boy being taught to respect the flag. 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 to 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 not for the object itself but what it symbolized.

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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—like the park in front of our house where the battle of Fort Washington was fought in 1776.

One of the first symbols that appears in the Bible is the rainbow that comes out after Noah’s flood. It’s God’s promise that floodwaters will never again destroy all creatures. “This is the symbol of the covenant between God and every living being of all the earth’s creatures,” God said to Noah.

The cross is a potent symbol, so powerful 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.

The American flag is relatively recent 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, a hundred years ago.

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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.” Liberty and justice for all.

Hats off. It’s Flag Day.

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