Independence Day in the Prayer Book Tradition

July 3, 2012

The American 1928 Book of Common Prayer provides a Collect, Epistle and Gospel reading for Independence Day. This is in keeping with the prayerful observance of civil occasions in the Church of England. From this, we can safely suppose that the prayer book editors intended that God’s people might gather for Holy Communion to keep such an important event. This is no modern invention, nor did it arise from some perceived need to provide the proper “theatrics” in which one might plant a social message.(A search of the 1892 BCP Altar Service Book does not find a service for the Fourth, so this was likely  added in 1928.)

While the 1928 Prayer Book has numerous deficiencies, one may appreciate this section of liturgy since its editors are historically separated from the current political controversies. While considering the blessings of liberty announced on July 4, 1776, the editors selected an Old Testament passage as the Epistle reading. (The original biblical text came from the KJV, it is updated in more modern language here..)

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the LORD your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen. (Deut 10:17-21 ESV)


There are two important ideas put forward. First, God is to be praised and embraced. If we are prosperous, it is not ourselves but the divine authority that has done it. Man is dependent on the Almighty, not the state and certainly not himself. In the context of Independence Day, this brings up the idea of a worshiping nation. God deserves praise, worship and thanks. That service is man’s voluntary duty. We require it of ourselves and the church may rightly demand it of faithful Christians, but it may not be imposed on unbelievers. Worship given at the end of a shotgun’s barrel is not worship at all.

The other thing to consider is the concept of kindness to sojourners. Just so that you do not think that this only has to do with travelers, such as someone who has difficulty on vacation, the NASB translates the Hebrew word “ger” as “alien.” That is somebody who is an immigrant, a stranger or foreigner. Of course, we should pick that up from the context. The original audience was composed of strangers in Egypt, according to what God says. You probably should not think of that as being merely situational because many of the intended first recipients of this message were born during the march in the desert. They were not, literally speaking, strangers in Egypt, but they were included because their parents were and Egypt represents the materialistic concerns of which we are all sometimes enslaved. God loves the immigrants and calls on us for kindness as a type of spiritual discipline. That helps us remember our own sorry condition.

Both of these notions are in opposition to the self-centered and ambitious tone of American life. On Independence Day,if we pay attention to the Eucharistic readings of the old Prayer Book, it would be good to recall our total dependence on God and the need to humbly assist those who are struggling in a strange land.

FOOTNOTE: The Gospel reading is Matthew 5:43, “love your enemies.” You might chew on that for a while too.


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