I graduated from Texas A&M in 1979 and enjoy returning to the campus whenever I can. At a university that takes its traditions seriously I am always fascinated by the changes. One “new” (to me) tradition is an on campus student Bible study called Breakaway. It began as a small group Bible study in 1989 with 12 students. Today it regularly draws over 10,000 students every Tuesday night in Reed Arena, the basketball venue for the university. Last night, many more than that gathered in the main student section of Kyle Field, the football venue.
The music was loud (and, therefore, was heard far beyond the stadium) and the songs, which were all newer, celebrated the propitiatory death of Christ, the sovereignty of God and the greatness of divine love and grace. Prayers were offered, one in particular for the student athletes and the student body at large. Verses from John 5 were read, carefully explained and pointedly applied. Jesus Christ was clearly set forth as the only Savior for needy, broken sinners. I was greatly encouraged by the thought that so many students, including a large number of internationals, sat under this teaching of God’s Word. All this, on a state university campus.
Of all the time-honored traditions at my alma mater none affected me more as a student than Silver Taps. Last night, after Breakaway, I was privileged to experience that tradition again after 37 years as respects were paid to seven Aggie students who have died since the last Silver Taps.
It is an emotionally moving experience. Flags on campus are flown at half mast throughout the day. At 10:20 PM the campus goes dark and quiet as lights are turned off and fellow students, friends and family members (who are specifically escorted) walk silently to the academic plaza around a statue of one of the first A&M presidents, Lawrence Sullivan Ross. Well-known tunes from Christian hymns are played from a bell tower in the distance. Last night’s repertoire included A Mighty Fortress is Our God, O God Our Help in Ages Past, Rock of Ages and Amazing Grace.
For fifteen minutes or so I joined thousands of mostly young college students (it is impossible to know how many but I would guess at least 10,000, judging from the crowd and traffic afterward) as they stood silently while those tunes played. As I contemplated the moment I could not help but pray that the Lord would impress deeply on these young minds their mortality and their need to be reconciled to their Creator, before whom we must all stand in judgment on the appointed day.
After several minutes of silence following the hymns, members of the Ross Volunteers, a student military organization, march slowly to the plaza in their dress whites. Following muted commands they fire a twenty-one gun salute in three volleys. Following this, six buglers from the Aggie Band sound a special arrangement of Silver Taps, first to the north, then the south, then the west. It is not played to the east, signifying that the sun will never again rise on the fallen Aggies being honored. After the final bell tolls following the buglers, the Ross Volunteers march away and the students disperse quietly as the campus begins to be relit.
It is a sober ceremony. And one that has great benefit. In a world that demands that we constantly be wired in and checking the activities, posts and statuses of friends and strangers alike, 45 minutes of silence and darkness in the presence of thousands on the occasion of death provides an opportunity for serious reflection. The preacher says that
It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart (Ecclesiastes 7:2).
Sadly, because of the fallenness of this world and a student population of over 50,000, Texas A&M will have many more Silver Taps ceremonies on the first Tuesday of the month in this academic year. I pray that through this stark reminder of death along with the testimony and witness of faithful believers on campus and in the community, many will come to know Christ and will return or be sent to the hardest places on earth as His ambassadors.