Independence Day

Today’s readings: Ezekiel 3:17-21; Psalm 8; Colossians 3:9b-17; Matthew 25:31-46

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…

So begins our nation’s Declaration of Independence, a document of inestimable worth, authored by passionate men.  The independence that document brought came at the price of many lives, and so that independence and the rights it brought forth, must always be vigorously defended and steadfastly maintained.

The Liturgy of the Word today shows just exactly how important this is.  Yes, it’s good for people to be free from despotic rule, but there is more to it than that.  So in today’s Gospel, Jesus gathers his disciples and paints for them a picture of what the final judgment will be like.  When we think about judgment day, we often picture something that will happen to us as individuals, and indeed, that is one aspect.  But the really important judgment comes about not as individuals, but as nations.  Indeed, Jesus tells us that the nations will be assembled before him when he comes in glory, and these he will separate like the sheep from the goats.  It’s not an individual picture here at all.

So this makes exercising our rights a matter of great importance.  We can’t be a people who don’t take the time to vote, because the leaders of our nation can either lead us to salvation or to damnation.  We can’t be people who decide how to vote a matter of simply “what’s in it for me,” but instead must give due care to consider the welfare of our nation as a whole, and the influence that we exert on the world community.  We have to be a nation who brings others to Christ and gives witness to the Gospel.  As Ezekiel prophecies in our first reading today, woe to us if we don’t!

It’s a sobering thought, but not one that we should feel is insurmountable.  Since that momentous day of July 4, 1776, we have been a people that has vigorously defended the rights that bring us to peace in this life and salvation in the next.  We have defended life.  But as our society has become more complex, the right to life has been somewhat blurred.  When does life begin?  What lives need to be protected?  The Church, of course, calls for a vigorous defense of life at every stage from conception to natural death.  That means abortion is wrong, embryonic stem-cell research is wrong, euthanasia is wrong.  These convictions make for difficult conversations, but life is and always will be a basic human right.

We have defended the right to liberty, but that right is similarly blurred in today’s society.  Nobody wants anything to infringe on their freedoms.  And nothing should.  But being free people doesn’t mean that we’re free to do whatever we want.  Our freedom cannot, for example, impinge on the freedom of another person.  Our freedom cannot allow us to harm another person.  As we heard in last Sunday’s second reading, Saint Paul tells us that “for freedom, Christ has set us free.”  Our freedom has a purpose, and that purpose is that we can then freely choose Christ, freely choose God, freely choose love.  None of that happens in a coerced way.  Freely choosing God means that we must be willing to freely choose all that that choice entails, without threat of harm from another.

And finally there is the pursuit of happiness.  We Christians believe that happiness will never be perfectly obtained in this life.  We long for the happiness of the kingdom of God, that place we were made for in the first place.  We have the right to pursue reasonable happiness in this life, and we have a right to exercise the means to pursue the most excellent happiness of the world to come.

In the last line of the Declaration, our forefathers pledged themselves to the great task of building a nation based on these inalienable rights: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”  May we always make the same pledge that our nation may always be great.