Today many of us in the United States will visit cemeteries and find other ways to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving in the Armed Forces.
Memorial Day, observed annually on the last Monday of May, began in the nineteenth century as Decoration Day in memory of those who died in the American Civil War. It soon included all who died in military service — especially following World War II — and the name was officially changed to Memorial Day in 1967.
Remembering Those Who Went Before
Not to be confused with Veterans Day (November 11), which honors all military veterans (both those who died in service and those who did not), Memorial Day has become an occasion, over time, for broader expressions of memory, including deceased relatives and other loved ones who have gone before us.
In this spirit, it’s fitting that Memorial Day 2013 falls on May 27, the day John Calvin died — 449 years ago today. Likely no other Christian in the last 500 years, save only Martin Luther, has exerted such an influence. Below is how we tell the story of his death in the book With Calvin in the Theater of God.
Almost Dead Before Fifty
Calvin fell deathly ill in the winter of 1558 at age forty-nine. He thought himself at death’s doorstep and so turned his few remaining energies to his final revision of his Institutes. Until this time, he hadn’t been fully pleased with the shape and content of his often-revised magnum opus. Wanting to leave the church with a definitive edition, he worked feverishly, despite the fever, to finish it.
His health returned in the spring of 1559, and he soon returned to the pulpit. It was at this time that Denis Raguenier began taking extended shorthand notes on Calvin’s sermons, since he didn’t prepare manuscripts but preached extemporaneously. The sermon manuscripts of Calvin we have today are largely owing to Raguenier’s unflagging and far-sighted labors.
Founding the Academy, Translating the Institutes
Also in 1559, Calvin and sidekick Theodore Beza founded the Academy of Geneva. Beza would serve as its day-in, day-out head, and before long the Academy would become famous across Europe and produce lasting effects long after Calvin’s death.
In his final five years, Calvin translated the final edition of the Institutes into French, wrote a large commentary on the Pentateuch, and preached and lectured almost tirelessly. Almost. At barely fifty years old he was battling increasing illness and frailty, but his labors continued unceasing. There were seasons of sickness followed by renewed strength.
Buried in an Unmarked Grave
The great Reformer began slowing for the final time in February 1564. Soon it was too draining to preach and lecture. He spent his final months bedridden and died May 27, 1564, just weeks shy of his fifty-fifth birthday.
Calvin could tell in his lifetime that he’d likely be remembered long after his death. So he took pains to fade as namelessly from this world as he could. He requested burial in an unmarked grave hoping to prevent pilgrims from coming to see his resting place and engaging in the kind of idolatry he’d spent his lifetime standing against.
In death, he completed his life’s labors, not seeking to make much of Calvin, but striving with all his might to point beyond himself to the One who saved him and was his greatest joy, the only One most worthy of being made much of — the one who truly had made for his church the Ultimate Sacrifice.