It has been said that there are two truly American holidays. Thanksgiving Day (in late autumn) 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.”
Well, maybe not this year, a year conspicuously lacking in a lot of those things, those social activities Adams – and many of us – just took for granted until a few months ago. Even our gathering for Mass today takes place under unusual circumstances, which reflect the reality and the ongoing virulence of this pandemic, and its multiple effects on our spiritual and religious experience as well as on our social existence as citizens. Meanwhile, especially in the last several weeks, our awareness of the pandemic’s different impacts on different groups and of other past and present unjust social circumstances have increasingly forced us to face up to the moral dilemmas and unfinished business of our often painful national history. Not for the first time – and probably not the last – all Americans are being challenged to come to terms with our problematic past and its poisonous effects on our present, so as to be better able to face our future united in a common life with a common purpose.
It is always challenging to reexamine our history - just as challenging as it is to reconsider our own personal stories. We are all always more comfortable with whatever versions of our national and personal stories we have gotten used to telling ourselves. But however awkward, it is a perennial challenge to be faced – all the more so when we really take seriously our citizenship in the kingdom of God and how the additional demands of God’s kingdom alter all our other commitments, all our earthly loyalties, all our ethnic and national histories, all our personal and racial stories.
As Pope Saint Paul VI once said, "Jesus Christ is … Lord of the new universe, the great hidden key to human history and the part we play in it." [Homily, Manila, 1970]
Indeed, Saint Paul, in our second reading today from his letter to the early Christian community in Rome, at that time the imperial capital of the largest and most powerful empire the world had ever then known, 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.
As Catholics, of course, we have a long history (going back to Roman times) of thinking seriously about how to relate our faith to civil society – a long tradition of practical wisdom which we need to take seriously both as disciples and as citizens.
What resources does our faith offer to help us heal our civic life this Independence Day? What lessons have we learned from the past, and what can we do together – now - both to promote the common good of our country and to care for our common home this planet earth?
Homily for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 5, 2020.