Celebrating the Lord’s Day first, then fireworks

Here’s what I wrote for our weekly parish email newsletter this week. It explains why we’re not celebrating Independence Day on Sunday morning, even though it’s July 4. In an earlier post, I had a few things to say about the cross versus the flag. All that said, tomorrow after church I’ll be celebrating the birthday of the US with friends, food, and fireworks.

This Sunday many people will probably focus more on cookouts and fireworks than on offering thanks to God. At Christ Church, we’ll gather as we do every Sunday to feast on God’s presence in Word and sacrament.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with fireworks and cookouts. But we Christians should make sure that we have our priority straight: God comes before everything else. Period. While we are celebrating the birth of our nation, we would do well to put God in the center. How might we do that?

  • We should give thanks to God for all the blessings of our lives. All that we have is a gift from God, not the result of our own labor.
  • We should pray for our nation’s leaders — and all voters — that we might be guided to bring justice and dignity to all people.
  • We should pray that we might continue to grow as a nation, celebrating our strengths and also admitting our need to improve.
  • We should pray that our nation might be a beacon of hope to all nations, and that we might be worthy of that vocation.

So here’s an idea for this Sunday. Come to church in the morning. Remember what it’s all about. Then fire up the grill and get ready to watch the fireworks. Maybe it would be good to offer a prayer before chowing down on burgers & hot dogs. This is a pretty good one:

Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in 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.

Happy Independence Day weekend! And, even more important, I hope to see you on Sunday as we gather to celebrate the Lord’s Day!

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23 Responses

  1. Quick, somebody tell the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music! Somehow propers for something called Independence Day, a Major Feast Day, got put in the BCP by mistake!

  2. Scott Gunn says:

    Yes, Bill, there are propers for the celebration of Independence Day. And this year, because Sunday falls on July 4, we Episcopalians should celebrate the day in our churches on July 5.

    My little essay (for a parish newsletter) was avoiding church geekery, but perhaps I should write a nerdish blog post about why it is a problem for parishes to disregard the kalendar of the prayer book…

  3. But it’s not disregarding the prayer book:

    “When desired, however, the Collect, Preface, and one or more of the Lessons appointed for the Feast may be substituted for those of the Sunday, but not from the Last Sunday after Pentecost through the First Sunday after the Epiphany, or from the Last Sunday after the Epiphany through Trinity Sunday” (page 16).

  4. Scott Gunn says:

    Yes, Bill, that is true. However, that assumes that the celebration is still Of the Lord’s Day — that is, the title of the feast should be of the Sunday. No problem using a lesson or two, or the other provisions of the prayer book.

    My issue is that many parishes tomorrow will be quick to celebrate Independence Day instead of Sunday. We can’t quite shake our erastian tendencies.

    Mixing the cross and the flag is a dangerous business, because we are so tempted to get the order wrong. Thus I am more squeamish about this one than some other issues.

  5. Well, the business of using the collect and lessons but being careful with using the title seems a little nice to me. If it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…

    We’ll be using the Sunday Propers at 8:00, and Independence Day at 10:00 at St Stephens. I don’t think that anyone is going to be confused as to why they’re there: no one gets up early on Sunday (and any time Sunday morning is early) to go to Solemn High Mass on the Fourth of July, after all.

    The problem with always transferring feasts that fall on a Sunday is that it invariably results in fewer people being exposed to the richness of the kalendar.

  6. Bryan Owen says:

    I agree with Scott that mixing the cross and the flag is dangerous business. So it’s critically important to follow the logic of the Prayer Book. The bottom line is that the Lord’s Day takes precedence over any national holiday, including Independence Day (hence the reason why the Propers for Independence Day are transferred to Monday, July 5). While patriotism is a very good thing, there’s a lot riding theologically on staying focused tomorrow morning on the 6th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9). And so I will not be preaching about Independence Day, or even on the topic of freedom (which, in light of the Epistle reading assigned for Proper 8, would have worked if July 4 fell on last Sunday). Rather, my sermon is based on the Gospel reading assigned for Proper 9, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary (focusing on evangelism, actually).

    After morning services, I’ll take a nap, then I’ll fire up the grill, pop a cold one, and give thanks to God for this country as I grill chicken and burgers for the family.

  7. Scott Gunn says:

    Bryan, I’m right with you on all counts. My sermon mentions Naaman a bit (“sometimes God actually wants us to do stuff”) and goes on to talk about how we’re sent into the fields for the harvest. That’s the “doing stuff” part in our case. Evangelism, indeed!

    After all that, and a nap, I’ll change to food fireworks mode.

  8. I seem to detect a certain amount of pigeon-holing going on: here’s the box for God, here’s the box for politics. Sure, patriotism and religion can make a bad combination, but abusus non tollit usum.

    Will either of you be celebrating the Eucharist for Independence Day tomorrow?

  9. Bryan Owen says:

    I’d love to celebrate the Eucharist in observance of Independence Day, but the Cathedral is closed tomorrow.

    I don’t agree about the pigeon-holing bit. To me, it’s not about trying to neatly separate things which can’t be neatly separated, but rather about giving theological priority to the Lord’s Day. As much as I love my country, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead trumps the importance of Independence Day. One is central to the Christian faith. The other is not.

  10. Father, the fact that your church is not offering a service on the day you supposedly have transferred the feast to suggests that this is about something more than the due observance of Sunday. Your cathedral offices were closed on Thanksgiving, too, but you had a Eucharist scheduled for that day. Y’all have made a decision not to celebrate the Fourth liturgically at all – which is of course fine, and has a long history among Episcopalians. But it’s not *really* about whether to transfer the feast.

  11. Bryan Owen says:

    Bill, I don’t think there’s any need to suggest something about the “true” motives here. And really, it’s not my Cathedral that has transferred the liturgical observance of Independence Day. It is the Prayer Book’s expectation that such feasts, when they fall on a Sunday, are “normally transferred to the first convenient open day within the week” (BCP, p. 16).

    As to the issue of the Cathedral I serve not observing Independence Day tomorrow, that’s an issue to take up with my dean. Personally, I’d be happy to come back tomorrow for it. Or not. I can go either way. Same with Thanksgiving Day (whose observance or lack thereof is not really a relevant comparison to the issues with Independence Day this year since Thanksgiving Day always falls on a Thursday).

    Given what the BCP says on p. 16, I just may use the Propers for Independence Day on Tuesday when I celebrate the noonday Eucharist. There’s nothing else on the calendar taking precedence that day, so why not?

  12. Father, keep reading on page 16: “When desired, however, the Collect, Preface, and one or more of the Lessons appointed for the Feast may be substituted for those of the Sunday, but not from the Last Sunday after Pentecost through the First Sunday after the Epiphany, or from the Last Sunday after the Epiphany through Trinity Sunday.” It simply cannot be claimed that celebrating a Major Feast that falls on a green Sunday is somehow contrary to the BCP.

  13. Ethan Gafford says:

    It seems clear enough that the prayerbook allows either set of readings. The issue is thus not whether it’s allowable to use the readings for the 4th on Sunday (it is,) but whether it’s a good idea.

    The substitution of a national day’s readings is a very different thing than a saint’s. A saint, unlike a nation, is something that the Church has decided to strongly suspect to share in eternity with Christ. If we suspect that *our* nation is somehow exempt from the end of nations as a category under Christ’s reign, there’s something very wrong, and we’re probably being idolatrous.

    The prayerbook certainly admits the option of using the readings for the 4th. However, if the readings for the 4th are used, it seems critical that the focus and intent of the service remain fixed absolutely on the Lord’s day and on God’s sovereignty in title and in spirit, lest we crown the wrong King.

  14. Ethan, have you actually read the propers for Independence Day? There’s absolutely no chance whatsoever of crowning the wrong King based on those texts.

    Honestly, you’d think we were using the theme song from Team America: World Police as a processional hymn…

  15. Bryan Owen says:

    Bill, good point about the Propers for Independence Day.

    Also, I’m quite aware of what the rest of page 16 in The Book of Common Prayer says. My point was simply to underscore that, according to that same page, feast days like Independence Day are “normally transferred” when they fall on a Sunday. It follows that not transferring it is the exception to the Prayer Book norm, not that it’s absolutely prohibited. However, I still think that the norm of using the Propers for the Lord’s Day can and should take precedence.

    I also note that Independence Day is not listed as a Major Feast on page 17 of the Prayer Book, but Thanksgiving Day is. But then Independence Day is listed as a Holy Day in the back of the Prayer Book. It’s interesting that Independence Day doesn’t get named in the official Prayer Book commentary on the Calendar of the Church Year, but Thanksgiving Day does.

  16. Fr Owen, I don’t know about yours, but my copy of the BCP has Independence Day wedged firmly between Saint James of Jerusalem and Thanksgiving Day under “Other Major Feasts” on page 17.

  17. Bryan Owen says:

    Wow, I really missed that one! Thanks for the correction, Bill.

  18. Ethan Gafford says:

    I’ve participated in 4th of July celebrations using the propers, yes. I didn’t find them offensive, though I did find the singing of patriotic songs after the dismissal to be inappropriate, nor was I thrilled with the flying of the flag in church.

    I don’t think anything I said was either inaccurate or offensive to those propers. I could be wrong there; I think that the thrust of it was: countries have a different relationship to Christ than the objects of most Church feasts do; making a celebration of the Lord’s Day be primarily about one’s country has real risks; those risks should be recognized and mitigated.

    Many Americans, some of them Episcopalians, do believe in the specific chosen-ness of America, and conflate the progress of Christ and the nation, in a very unhealthy (and idolatrous) way. I can imagine that celebrating the 4th on a Sunday could easily fuel those flames. Denying those flames fuel is a good thing.

    The propers for the 4th could be used perfectly well; I’m sure they often are. If you want to celebrate the 4th on Sunday, knock yourself out; if done well, it could be a perfect opportunity for instruction on the real and ideal relationship of God’s authority and the state. just recognize that some people do think Jesus is an American.

  19. Fr Alexander says:

    Oh dear. It appears that while I was napping my intrepid parishioner Bill Dilworth was fighting my battles for me, which he has been doing admirably. Apart from what has been already been said, a couple of considerations merit comment.

    First, at S. Stephen’s, we did both observances today: the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost [at the 8 am] and Independence Day [at the 10 am]. And we let parishioners know a week in advance what we were doing so that if anyone had any strong feelings about which service they wanted to attend they would have the opportunity to do so. I discovered the liturgical principle a couple of years ago that, outside of the privileged seasons, when another occasion might legitimately be celebrated on a Sunday, it should be “in addition to” rather than “in place of” the Mass of the day. And, at the end of this morning’s observances, there was a certain resonant feeling of completeness, if only on my part, at having fulfilled all righteousness.

    Second, obviously I agree with Bill’s interpretation of the rubric on page 16 which supplies full warrant for what we did this morning. The rubrics govern precisely the “Collect, Preface, and Lessons” that are used liturgically. I’m not aware that the *title* one puts on one’s service leaflet is anywhere addressed by, let alone governed by, the rubrics. [Nor for that matter is the liturgical color. We wore green at the 8am; white at the 10am.]

    Third, to get to the real heart of the matter, the problem which exercises Fr. Gunn and Mr. Gafford is really that of the liturgical celebration of Independence Day becoming an occasion of “civil religion.” And their concerns are absolutely well founded. American civil religion, which wraps the cross in the flag, is an abomination. A year or so ago, I took some flak from one or two parishioners for an article I wrote in the parish newsletter condemning civil religion. [For the classic definition and description of American civil religion, read Robert Bellah’s essay which appeared in, I think, 1965 in Daedalus. It has been widely reprinted and is available online by googling.] The corrective to civil religion is, however, to offer a service for Independence Day that gets the priorities right: praying for the nation and its leaders, reminding everyone that all earthly political allegiances take second place to our loyalty to Christ, etc. Indeed, the advantage of celebrating Independence Day when it falls on a Sunday is precisely that it provides a “teaching moment” for addressing the question of the Christian’s relationship to the political order. For my own attempt to do just that this morning, I humbly refer anyone interested to my sermon blog, fatheralexander.blogspot.com.

  20. Ethan Gafford says:

    Absolutely, Fr. Alexander: some of the earliest texts we have about Christians from an outside view speak of Christians both praying for the state and its leaders, and refusing to worship them. That’s always been appropriate, and is a part of most forms of the Prayers of the People. It’s the worship that’s scary (and common.)

    I’m certain I would’ve enjoyed your sermon this morning a great deal; it summed up the usum which abusus non tollit very well. Abū Naṣr al-Fārābī once wrote that the democracy, the city ruled by love of freedom, is the best kind of unjust city, because it allows those who wish to live in obedience to God to do so. Still, it’s an unjust city; the Christian (or Muslim, in al-Fārābī’s case,) is called to something higher than self-rule, as is the city itself. I’m happy to hear that St. Stephen’s taught it this morning.

    Using the 4th as a traditional “God and country” go-America celebration, though, is pretty scary. Even moreso without Team America in the background. It’s the subtle errors that win out in the end, and I’m willing to bet that sort of service was celebrated in a lot of parishes this morning.

    Fr. Gunn’s strategy also works. As noted pretty exhaustively, the prayerbook accepts either approach. Thanks to both of you for your witness.

  21. “Using the 4th as a traditional “God and country” go-America celebration, though, is pretty scary. Even moreso without Team America in the background. It’s the subtle errors that win out in the end, and I’m willing to bet that sort of service was celebrated in a lot of parishes this mornin”

    Agreed about the scariness. But anyone who could rest a “God and country” go-America celebration from the propers in the BCP would be capable of doing it with even the propers for the whateverth Sunday after Pentecost yesterday was.

  22. Bob Chapman says:

    A few years ago I was at St. John’s, Snohomish, Washington, when July 4 fell on a Sunday. (http://www.stjohnsnohomish.org/) Fr. Mark handled this whole problem better than most.

    The regular, normal Eucharist service for the Sunday was done, right up to and including the prayer (for mission) after receiving communion. Fr. Mark then took a position out of the sanctuary, at the head of the pews in the nave. Facing the altar, he lead us in the responsive prayers for our country from the BCP. This was followed by the singing of the two verses of “The Defense of Fort McHenry” found in the Hymnal 1982.

    It worked perfectly. The Sunday received its full due. The add-on acknowledged the day. Everyone could leave church happy.

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