Thursday, July 4, 2019

Some ancient wisdom and a prayer for Independence Day

The Fourth of July is a Holy Day in the Episcopal Church’s calendar. This may seem a bit odd, given our origin in the Church of England and the fact that many of our co-religionists fled the then-Colonies when governmental loyalties were at stake. Yet, many of the Revolutionaries were from this tradition and went on to play a major role in early United States history

Independence Day did not become an official Feast Day in our calendar until the 1928 revision of The Book of Common Prayer. There were many long memories and sore feelings amongst Episcopalians on this point. I remember being in a New York City rectory in the very early 1990s when this subject came up during an otherwise mellow conversation: the rector was descended from proud Revolutionaries, but his wife was from a Loyalist family. Even then, well over two hundred years after the events, it took very little time for the discussion to go from abstract notions of Liberty to the concrete recounting of property theft, threats to life and limb, and aggrieved loss of dignity. The general wisdom in the Episcopal Church for a long, long while after Independence was to let sleeping dogs lie in the Liturgy so that people could observe the occasion as they saw fit.

In our day, the discussions around this commemoration rightly tend toward the issues of promise and wisdom.

As with individuals, families, communities, clans, &c., each nation must learn to follow a wise path of life if it is to know God’s blessing and to nurture humans toward their full potential as made in the Image of God. When the nation pursues wisdom, it pursues justice, mercy, modesty, and love. When it does not, it pursues power, lust, possessions, and hatred. The passage from Ecclesiasticus (a.k.a. Sirach) appointed for Morning Prayer today well expresses this choice and its consequences. Read it carefully:

A wise magistrate educates his people,
   and the rule of an intelligent person is well ordered.
As the people’s judge is, so are his officials;
   as the ruler of the city is, so are all its inhabitants.
An undisciplined king ruins his people,
   but a city becomes fit to live in through the understanding of its rulers.
The government of the earth is in the hand of the Lord,
   and over it he will raise up the right leader for the time.
Human success is in the hand of the Lord,
   and it is he who confers honor upon the lawgiver.
Do not get angry with your neighbor for every injury,
   and do not resort to acts of insolence.
Arrogance is hateful to the Lord and to mortals,
   and injustice is outrageous to both.
Sovereignty passes from nation to nation
   on account of injustice and insolence and wealth.
The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord;
   the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.
For the beginning of pride is sin,
   and the one who clings to it pours out abominations.
Therefore the Lord brings upon them unheard-of calamities,
   and destroys them completely.
The Lord overthrows the thrones of rulers,
   and enthrones the lowly in their place.
The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations,
   and plants the humble in their place.
The Lord lays waste the lands of the nations,
   and destroys them to the foundations of the earth.
He removes some of them and destroys them,
   and erases the memory of them from the earth.
Pride was not created for human beings,
   or violent anger for those born of women. 

This is an important day to reflect on the state of soul, our leadership, and the level of our pride. Pride is here understood as the primal sin, the desire to be our own deity, to be autonomous of God’s revealed will. We may be tempted to focus on the lack of humility of those in authority (let the reader understand), but we must also reflect on the ways pride (and its various symptoms, such as resentment and petulance) has made inroads into our own lives and attitudes. Since our nation requires a wise electorate to make decisions, each of us must be about this work for ourselves in addition to demanding it from others. Only if we do the former will the latter have authority.

Here, as throughout the year, our prayer informs our life, its priorities, choices, and character. One of the prayers associated with this day in our Prayer Book is particularly apt in our own time:

Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Here we see the promise of our nation revealed in clear terms: to bring forth the glorious purpose of God in and through humanity. This is accomplished through both a zeal for justice and, at the same time, the capacity to forbear. We do not choose between the one or the other (i.e. “I am for justice” or “I am for mercy”), but must combine them through the freedom and love we ourselves have received from the crucified and risen Lord. Then—and only then—our liberty is a gift to be shared and not a weapon to be wielded. That is the spring from which we must draw, the light which will lighten our path.

Understood this way, Independence Day is, in fact, a Holy Day. It is an occasion for thanksgiving, but not triumphalism; reflection and renewal, not willful ignorance or prideful idolatry.

A blessed Fourth of July to all; may its proper observance make us a holier, better people.