Sunday, January 20, 2013

Inauguration Day

Since the adoption of the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1933, January 20 has replaced March 4 as Presidential Inauguration Day. (Because it falls on a Sunday this year, the oath of office will be administered privately in the White House, then repeated with the usual public festivities tomorrow, as has been the traditional practice whenever Inauguration Day falls on a Sunday - a reminder that once upon a time at least we really were a Christian country where the Lord's Day was taken seriously).
My earliest inaugural "memory" is of President Eisenhower's 2nd Inaugural in 1957 (like this year's also done privately on Sunday and then publicly on Monday), but the only thing I actually remember about it was watching the parade. John F. Kennedy's Inaugrual in 1961, on the other hand, I can recall in detail as vividly as if it were yesterday. The East Coast had experienced a severe snowstorm the night before, with the result that we had no school on Friday, January 20, 1961, which meant I was home and got to watch the whole show - from Kennedy's attendance at Mass at Holy Trinity in Georgetown to his trip to the White House for coffee with the Eisenhowers, the official ride of the outgoing and incoming presidents up Pennsylvania Avenue, the multiple prayers at the Capitol (including Cardinal Cushing's famously interminable invocaiton), Robert Frost's poem, the oaths of office, Kennedy's "pay any price, bear any burden" inaugural address, and the lengthy parade that followed it all. I've watched all or part of most inaugurations since, but none made the impression which that one did on an admittedly impressionable 13-year old looking for a world bigger than the Bronx.
As a celebration of democratic governance, the Inauguration ceremony is the most impressive distinctly American civic ceremony. An elaborately scripted ritual, sanctioned by longstanding American tradition, prescribes how the President and the Vice President travel in procession from the White House to the Capitol for the swearing of the oaths of office, Hail to the Chief, the 21-gun salute, and the President’s Inaugural Address, followed by the parade back to the White House – an elaborately choreographed civic ceremony intended to celebrate American democracy and constitutional government and to remind us of  our serious common vocation as citizens and the particular vocations of those we have called upon to undertake public office on our behalf.

In his 1st Inaugural Address, on April 30, 1789, George Washington said to the assembled Senators and Representatives:

"Such being the impressions under which I have, in obedience to the public summons, repaired to the present station, it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency; and in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their united government the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities from which the event has resulted can not be compared with the means by which most governments have been established without some return of pious gratitude, along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage. These reflections, arising out of the present crisis, have forced themselves too strongly on my mind to be suppressed. You will join with me, I trust, in thinking that there are none under the influence of which the proceedings of a new and free government can more auspiciously commence."
The Roman Missal contains the following prayer for the President: O God, to whom every human power is subject, grant to your servant our president, Barack Obama, success in the exercise of his high office, so that, always revering you and striving to please you, he may constantly secure and preserve for the people entrusted to his care the freedom that comes from civil peace.

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