My husband and I are usually early to Mass, early to everything for that matter. This morning was no exception as we entered the spacious nave of our local parish church.
I was glad to be early, for the organ soon sounded a lilting prelude. The time is a precious one, the fifteen minutes in this gentle quiet, a hushed time that settles my heart and mind. It is a quarter of an hour that bridges the rushing noise of the world outside with the sacred space of the church inside. It bridges chattering thoughts demanding attention with silence and melody. Time enters eternity in this brief segment of time and I wanted eternity to enter my soul.
Today, especially, this Third of July, I wanted to pray extra thanks for tomorrow, the Fourth of July. I opened our Book of Common Prayer and began reading the Psalms appointed for this day, kneeling on the cushioned kneeler and glancing up to the bright chancel before me.
A worn red carpet led to the chancel steps and on to the marble altar and white-draped tabernacle. Bouquets of red, white, and blue carnations shared the altar with gilded candlesticks and flaming tapers. The red brick apse caught some of the morning light shafting from the skylights, light that illuminated the medieval wooden crucifix. The red, white, and blue, the band of light descending, the American flag draped to the left all seemed to express truth, beauty, and goodness.
As my eyes rested on the flag, I recalled why I was giving thanks.
Every Eucharist (Greek for thanksgiving) is a prayer-song of thanks, an offering of praise and glory to God for his great gifts, including freedom, and today was one of many Sunday thanksgivings. But Independence Day, remembered in our Prayer Book, is when church and state unite, for our church would not be here without the protection of the state.
True, history tells us that we are celebrating our independence from Great Britain. But the essence of that departure is the freedom to worship as we please. And freedom of worship is the daughter of free speech, free expression within the law. As long as we keep the peace, our Founders reasoned, we could express ourselves freely. Self expression has come to mean many things, but originally America was colonized by those pilgrims fleeing religious persecution. And so we hold this truth to be self-evident, that man should be allowed to worship God as he chooses.
No longer could the elite dictate to the rest of us, for we Americans declared in writing on July 4, 1776 that,
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness… That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed… “
We are created equal by our Creator. We have the right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. We have the right to withdraw or grant our consent to government action.
The Declaration of Independence led to revolution and the creation of a sovereign nation. In the next years a Constitution and Bill of Rights (first ten amendments) limited government’s powers to those consented by the governed (1789). And so the First Amendment reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” (Italics mine)
And so I considered these things, these American things, as I knelt in the pew of our parish church, gazing at the stars and stripes of the flag. I knew such liberties were British too, going back to Magna Carta, but somehow they had been overruled in these American colonies. So, naturally, we expressed our dissent.
The American flag stood appropriately between pulpit and altar, connecting these two threatened expressions of religion – word and sacrament. For we are men and women who express ourselves in many ways, with five senses, with bodies and minds, hearts and souls. Our Creator gave us imaginations enriching the human community with poetry and art, song and dance, love and longing. We are created whole persons by our Creator, known by him even in the womb, and are made holy by our Creator in Sunday worship. For he too expresses himself imaginatively (we were made in his image), creatively, for each one of us is unique.
But perhaps the ultimate creative act of our Creator was to give us freedom. For in giving us the choice to love or not to love, he gave us the ability to define the outline of our souls, who we really are, who we desire to be. Free will, the greatest gift of love, opened a world of surprise, a Pandora’s box, allowing evil and suffering, disease and death into our world, so that in our last days, our last breaths, we see two doors, one to death and one to life. And even then we have the freedom to choose.
I sat back in the polished oak pew and found the processional hymn #279. And as the crucifer and the torchbearers lead the clergy up the worn red carpet, I joined my brothers and sisters in song: “Praise to the Lord the Almighty the King of Creation….” The Mass began, the prayers were prayed, scripture and sermon were sounded, as the Holy Eucharist pulled us into eternity, into Love.
It was good to be in church today, to celebrate our freedom of religion, to give thanks for our country’s founding. It was good to sing together, just before the sermon, Hymn 141:
My country,’ tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died, Land of the pilgrims’ pride, From every mountainside Let freedom ring!
My native country, thee, Land of the noble free, Thy name I love;
I love thy rocks and rills, Thy woods and templed hills; My heart with rapture thrills, Like that above.
Let music swell the breeze, And ring from all the trees Sweet freedom’s song;
Let mortal tongues awake; Let all that breathe partake; Let rocks their silence break, The sound prolong.
Our fathers’ God, to thee, Author of liberty, To thee we sing;
Long may our land be bright With freedom’s holy light;
Protect us by thy might, Great God, our King. Amen.
Samuel Francis Smith, 1832
Indeed. Let freedom ring!