Memorial Day long ago lost its meaning for most Americans.

From the beginning it was meant to be a somber occasion, but today it is widely regarded as the unofficial first weekend of summer – a time of barbecues, beaches and, most of all, a day off from work.

Memorial Day was first proclaimed in 1868 and was reserved to honor the soldiers who died in the War Between the States – with good reason. Back then, the still young nation had lost hundreds of thousands of men, more than in any conflict before. It was adopted as a national holiday by all states in 1918.

This year we mark the 60th anniversary of World War II in which some 400,000 Americans gave their lives. Think of that sacrifice. Each of those soldiers was someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s father, someone’s husband. We can scarcely imagine that magnitude of sacrifice today.

The idea was for Memorial Day to be a kind of national day of mourning for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for freedom, duty, honor and country. People would gather and sing hymns. Prayers would be said. Flowers would be laid at graves. There were flag ceremonies. Taps was played.

Sadly today, many children and, surprisingly, many American adults do not understand the simple idea behind Memorial Day.

Even scientific surveys show Americans confused about the observance. Many Americans confuse it with Veterans Day. While we can never honor enough the men and women who serve and served our country honorably in war, Memorial Day is supposed to be a day reserved for mourning those who gave their lives for their country.

This is an important distinction.

There are good Americans giving their lives today – even as we remember those who gave them in past wars.

All military personnel make sacrifices. They leave their homes and families for extended periods of time. Many put their lives on the line. All of them today, with our all-volunteer military, could take less hazardous assignments in civilian life. But soldiers, sailors and airmen make a commitment to freedom, duty, honor and country.

Yet we as a nation must never forget those who give the ultimate sacrifice of laying down their lives for others.

It’s a concept that should be well understood by Christians – the concept of substitutional sacrifice. That’s what more than 1 million Americans have done for us in our history of wars – given their lives so that we can live in freedom.

That’s what Jesus did for us in the ultimate atonement. He willingly gave His life so that we could be free of sin.

Yet I seldom hear our churches make this analogy of substitutional sacrifice leading up to Memorial Day.

Do we not owe at least one day to reflect soberly on the sacrifices of so many men for their country?

Whatever you do today with your family and friends, can you take a few quiet moments to reflect and remember the ultimate sacrifices of the past and present?

Between the hot dogs and the baseball games, the rest and the relaxation, the fun and the games, can we as a nation truly express quietly and sincerely the gratitude we should all feel to those who suffered and died for us collectively?

Do our heroes deserve any less?

Don’t let the memories fade.

Don’t let Memorial Day become simply part of a three-day weekend.

The families of those who have lost children, fathers, brothers, husbands know what I am talking about. They don’t have any trouble remembering what Memorial Day is all about.

The rest of us need to share in their grief and their respect today.

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.