Saturday, July 2, 2011

Independence Day

There are, I think, two truly American holidays. Thanksgiving Day (in late autumn, after the harvest) looks inward to the heart and soul of America, and so is celebrated at home, at table, among family and friends. Independence Day (in summer) looks outward to the world of nations and states, and so is celebrated (as John Adams said it should be) “by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.”

As citizens of the United States, we properly celebrate our national day as Adams proposed. We honor this great legacy left for us, often at great sacrifice, by generations of citizens past, immigrants to this new land, with whom we remain linked in a great social compact, bounded by history to one another, both past and present, for the sake of the future. And so we celebrate this holiday weekend our past history as a nation, our present life together, and our hope for our common future. At the same time, we assemble today, as we do every Sunday, to profess our faith. “

In one sense, I suppose, the link may seem obvious. It may no longer be the case, as it was in 1782 when Benjamin Franklin wrote, “that persons may live to a great age in [this] country, without ever having their piety shocked by meeting with either an Atheist or an Infidel.” That said, however, there is still no other Western country in which Christian faith is so strong and vibrant as it is in the United States. And, despite the determined efforts of some elite elements to exclude religion from our public life, religious people continue to consider their beliefs important and so resist reducing them to some socially harmless private hobby. As that great observer of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote in 1835, a person “will endeavor … to harmonize the state in which he lives upon earth, with the state which he believes to await him in heaven.”
As Catholics, of course, we have a long history (going back to the Roman Empire) of thinking seriously about how to relate our faith to civil society – a long tradition of practical wisdom concerning social and political life, a tradition we need to take seriously both as disciples and as citizens.

Coincidentally, today’s first reading, from the prophet Zechariah [9:9-10], foretells the coming of the Messiah as the ultimate king, whose dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. It reminds us that, over and above all the many inter-related networks of human relationships of which we are a part and which we need to care about – family, work, country – we are also, first and foremost, citizens of the kingdom of God, a relationship which gives added meaning and transforms all those other relationships.

Likewise, St. Paul, in our second reading today from his letter to the early Christian community in Rome [Romans 8:9, 11-13], reminds us that, even while we remain thoroughly engaged in the otherwise ordinary-seeming life of our world, we are simultaneously living a new life, given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul’s idea is that Christ’s new life has become our new life too, thereby reversing the death-ward direction of our ordinary existence and empowering us to allow ourselves and our entire lives – public and private - to be re-shaped by the Gospel’s stirring call to a total reorientation of our lives.

Of course, the complexities and very real burdens of living in our world do not automatically get erased just by the fact of our becoming disciples of Jesus. In fact, what Jesus seems to be proposing in today’s Gospel [Matthew 11:25-30] may appear as adding yet another additional burden – the burden of following him – to the complexities and burdens we already have. Yet it is precisely this added dimension – this yoke, as Jesus himself calls it - which somehow puts all the other complications and burdens of living in a totally new context – an insight, which (Jesus warns) is sometimes lost to the wise and the learned of the world.

So the rest that Jesus promises us is not a release from our ties to the world and the tough realities and responsibilities of ordinary human life. It is rather a new way of living and being involved in the world, a new way of making sense of our relationships and responsibilities with and for one another.

Homily for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 2-3, 2011.

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