Holy Days and Holidays

Holy Days and Holidays May 27, 2012

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.

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  • Mark Gordon


    • Julia Smucker

      I’m pleased to have passed the veteran test. 🙂

      Seriously, Mark, your stamp of approval really means something here.

  • Yes, what Mark Gordon said – amen! I was anxious as I arrived at church on Saturday. It is usually the closing hymn that gets co-opted into something patriotic. However, we were spared. I will not be so fortunate around July 4th though.

  • Carl Diederichs

    Are there any popular hymns that might fit well this morning?

  • brettsalkeld

    God Bless America as a communion hymn!?!? How regular is this kind of thing?

    • Julia Smucker

      Only at peak patriotism. I was horrified at the proposal, but I write it off as a fluke.

      • Joan Braune

        I once witnessed “I’m Proud to be an American” as a communion hymn on July 4. The Mass was also accompanied by patriotic PowerPoint images, including Jesus wrapped in an American flag, and it ended with the Pledge of Allegiance. In fairness, it was mainly a parish of immigrants, so they might have been defensive about showing their patriotism, but it was still disturbing.

        • Julia Smucker

          I feel a sudden urge to rend my garments. I’m sure John of Patmos must be turning in his grave.

        • Dan

          Well, better than “I am a Real American” 😉

  • It drives me crazy when they use hymns that worship a secular state. Back on the day, we had about 50 festa ferienda throughout the year. These were our holidays. And now, they have been replaced by cheap secular imitations. Since religious liberty is so highly regarded today, let me propose this – the right for the major religions to celebrate their major feast days instead of the feasts of the secular state.

  • Thank you, Julia. Great post.

    We American Catholics need to remind ourselves daily that nationalism is idolatry.

  • Thanks so much for your gracious prayer. (and I agree, I don’t think the early Church in Rome would have gone along with singing Seutonius’s, “All the Gauls did Caesar vanquish, Lo! now Caesar rides in triumph, victor over all the Gauls.” At least until after Constantine). Much Obliged.

  • Jordan

    I was always uneasy with the inclusion of propers for American Thanksgiving, among other secular observances, in the American ferial cycle of the reformed missal. If I were a priest, I would celebrate the commemoration for the day and mention the secular holiday in a brief homily. For better or worse, many people expect and even enjoy civic anthems on state holidays. It’s difficult to say no in these circumstances, but the integrity of the holy liturgy must take precedence.

    Julia Smucker: 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.

    Given the politically rightward lurch of some segments of the American episcopacy, American exceptionalism could become a distinct question in Catholic worship given that exceptionalism, especially with regard to military affairs, has become a secular religion among the political right. American Christian evangelicalism has already largely embraced this conflation between rightist politics and exceptionalism. I do not know how lay Catholics can head off this merger now that many of our leaders have decided on a particularly partisan civic participation.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    A particularly horrific conflation of religious and secular themes is the following image:


    I got a different version of this on FaceBook and it seems to be ubiquitous.

    • grega

      Well practiced – lived religion is just not an entirely academic excercise – thus of course people will express religious believe within the context of their lives.
      Those that are a tad more ‘patriotic’ than you and me of course will feel very comforted when they combine their secular and religious views. Most of us liberals do the same – we just happen to have a different set of sentiments.
      🙂 God bless America – another one of those zingers – at least for us ~6.7 Billion Non Americans.

    • Ugh! That is awful!

  • Fr. Rob Johansen

    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.

    So, Julia, were the men who liberated Dachau and Buchenwald “doing the nation’s dirty work”? Were the US troops who drove the Japanese out of the Philippines “doing the nation’s dirty work”? Were the US troops sent to stop genocide in the Balkans “doing the nation’s dirty work”?

    I recently buried a veteran of WWII, who fought and lost an eye in the Ardennes. I’m sure his relatives would be grateful for your condescending “honor” of someone willing to “do the nation’s dirty work”.

    • Julia Smucker

      My heart truly goes out to this veteran and his family, and I recognize how misplaced it would be for me to begrudge a grieving family their need to view his death in heroic terms in order to find some meaning in it. And yet it is often soldiers and veterans themselves who keep us honest lest we romanticize war. I think of a friend of mine, whose husband has recently been deployed for the fourth time, who said to me that soldiers are the most peace-loving people you’ll meet because they know how ugly war is. This is what I’ve been learning from my own interactions with those who have experienced first-hand the dirtiness of war.

    • Fr. Rob, you mentioned a man who lost an eye. Christ also mentions that case:

      “You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. (Mt 5)”

      If Christians had obeyed their savior’s words and imitated their savior’s deeds, there would have been no World Wars, no Holocaust, no nuclear armageddon. Well, that last one we’re still waiting for. May you preach the Gospel faithfully and courageously, Father.