I always get nervous when Church holidays and national holidays fall too near each other. There is too great a temptation to fuse the two, sometimes with idolatrous results. (For example, the parish choir I was part of two years ago, when July 4 happened to fall on a Sunday, would have added “God Bless America” as a communion hymn if I had not balked at the suggestion.) I’m squeamish even about calling these celebrations by a common term that derives from the word “holy”. And yet, as we in the United States approach Memorial Day, I wonder if the Solemnity of Pentecost can perhaps help us to keep our national celebration in a more humble and catholic perspective.
Pentecost is about a catholicity that does not eradicate national identity, but nonetheless transcends it. Yes, Christians can legitimately celebrate national holidays. By all means, let us honor the memory of those whose lives have been tragically sacrificed while being sent out to do the nation’s dirty work. To put their sacrifice in a more positive light as service to one’s country, or even to paint it in heroic-sounding abstractions like “defending freedom”, reflects an understandable and very human need to seek meaning in their deaths. But what we must not do is couch this sacrifice in theological terms, as if our nation above any other possessed a divine mandate.
A healthy and humble love of one’s country that leaves room for citizens of other nations to express similar sentiments is all well and good. But for Christians, the catholicity of Pentecost should cast its shadow over all expressions of patriotism, as we recall the descent of the Spirit in whose name we share one baptism, who speaks in the languages of “every nation under heaven”.
Amid all the good and important discussions around U.S. politics that go on here at Vox Nova, we are fortunate to have a number of non-Americans among the contributors and commenters. Their presence keeps those of us who are Americans accountable to this Pentecost catholicity during a time when the false doctrine of exceptionalism is a pervasive temptation – especially when national holidays roll around.
Despite my deep-seated unease with the fusion of liturgical and civic holidays, let me dare to offer my own Memorial Day prayer in the spirit of Pentecost:
May those who have died fighting on behalf of this and all other nations now rejoice to share together in the one heavenly banquet, through Christ our Lord and by the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father.