Happy 4th of July weekend. We celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia. That document proclaims aloud: 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.” Woodrow Wilson a century ago said this document is a “program of action” for all people. This weekend, we might rededicate ourselves afresh to these principles for people everywhere, and not just in the United States.
As we reflect on our own religious liberties, we might pray for the many people around the world who are being discriminated against or killed or injured for practicing their faith: Coptic Christians in Egypt; Chaldean Christians in Iraq; Christians in Nigeria, to name but a few. Pray that God will find a safe home for their families. If you are able, you might consider a gift to Catholic Relief Services or the Catholic Near East Welfare Association for these refugees.
First, a story. A few of you may know that Joe Torre, the legendary Yankees baseball coach, and I grew up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood. In fact, we both played ball in Marine Park. I of course didn’t do as well as Joe.
I was a pitcher. One day I knew I was in trouble when the little league coach approached the mound and said, “Boy, I think I better have someone else relieve you.” But I argued, “I struck this guy out last time.” “Yes, I know,” said the coach, “but this is the same inning and he’s at bat again.” The beginning of the end of my baseball career.
The word of God takes us back in our imaginations to the 9th century before Jesus, to a holy man by the name of Elisha. A wealthy and childless woman welcomes this “holy person” into her home, and offers him room and board. Elisha, not to be outdone, promises that God will bless her with a child. Lo and behold, God blesses her with a son. The woman invites us to be always hospitable; Elisha, to trust in God’s providence or care for us as we journey through life.
Paul in his letter describes how we have the life of God in us through the waters of baptism. Water can be life threatening as well as life giving! In early Christianity, baptismal candidates submerged or “buried” themselves in a pool of water, a gesture symbolizing a dying to a self-centered life; and as the candidates came up out of the water, that symbolized a rising to an other-centered or God-centered life. Paul challenges us to remember our own baptismal promises and who we are: sons and daughters of God our Father and called to live a God-like life.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus calls us to get our priorities straight. First things first: our relationship with God. Then Jesus invites us to see the “face of God” in our fellow human beings, no matter how hidden that face of God.
During these days we have been celebrating the lives of some of the “giants” or heroes of our faith: John the Baptist, Peter and Paul. Peter and Paul were two ordinary people who did extraordinary things, two martyrs who lived and died for the Gospel: one by crucifixion; the other by beheading. Peter was the rock, the leader, often spontaneous and unthinking but always ready to admit a mistake, make amends, someone you could trust.
And Paul, the preacher, the apostle to the Gentiles, often argumentative and aggressive but always courageous in speaking the truth. Who are your heroes and heroines in Catholic Christianity? One of my favorite heroes is John the Baptist.
John is called the “Baptist” because he immersed people in the Jordan River as a sign of repentance, a sign of their desire to be cleansed from old ways so that they could live a new way, oriented to God’s covenant. John is the one who prepares the way for Jesus, the bridge between the two covenants that created a special relationship between God and us: that of the Hebrews and that of Jesus Christ. John definitely wasn’t into fashion–he lived a rugged, ascetic lifestyle--dressing in camel skin and eating locusts and wild honey. And his message in the wilderness was very simple. He proclaimed what the prophet Micah begged the Hebrews to do centuries before: do what is right, love goodness and walk humbly with your God. “Repent,” John cried out; “orient your life to God’s covenant.”
Most importantly, John pointed to Jesus as the light, the Lord, the One to whom we owe our ultimate allegiance, the “Passover” or sacrificial Lamb of God through whose blood we have God’s eternal life. John is indeed the herald of Jesus; and for speaking the truth to power, King Herod, John was imprisoned and executed.
John challenges us to be heralds of Jesus in our families, our workplaces and our communities by the manner in which we live.
The author of the Gospel sums up John’s mission in the canticle or song of Zechariah, John’s father: “for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” We too are called to prepare the way of the Lord so that the Lord can enter into the “hearts” of our fellow human beings, so that through our own “heart” the grace and favor of God can empower others to “do what is right, love goodness and walk humbly with your God.” And there’s no better place to begin than in our own families.
But how do we prepare the way for the Lord in our own families? Here is one approach.
First, continue to create a better sense of togetherness, a feeling of closeness and care for one another. Keep in touch with one another, even if it’s only by telephone or email or skype; be hospitable, checking in with elderly relatives. Remember birthdays/anniversaries and celebrate them together, if possible. Participate in special family events, e. g., graduations, baptisms, confirmation, marriages, cookouts, Sunday liturgies, etc. Communicate; take responsibility for family chores, spend time with one another; share the good news as well as bad news; keep your word and thereby build up trust.
Second, take control of your family life. There are so many activities today that can easily divide a family – activities all valuable in themselves – but if not checked, can rob families of time together.
And finally, parents have to let their sons/daughters become the persons God created them to be. The purpose of family is to nurture children in a secure and loving environment until they become mature enough to venture out on their own and become responsible persons. Parents have to let go of them so that they can take their place in the world as responsible adults.
And so. as we enter into summer, like John the Baptizer, prepare the way for the Lord to enter into your families, workplaces and communities.