People beginning to look on our city with eyes of faith face a challenge: where do I fit in to this picture. It’s not just a matter of taste-based preferences, “I’m a vegetarian. You eat meat.” “I like jazz others prefer rock.” Reading the world through eyes of faith can sometimes lead to marginalization, even outright rejection. One of our teens shared this on retreat. He had been touched by a parish youth group experience and began to pray at different points in the day… including grace before lunch at school; a act that one the strange looks and even jeers of his classmates. It’s not just in public schools either. Students at Catholic schools will often face an uphill climb to speak openly among more secular peers about how they see the world. As we approach Independence Day, such situations beg the question, “In the American City on a Hill where does a person fit who sees with eyes of faith?”
Turning to the Sunday readings, we hear “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad because of her.” God’s people had been released from exile in Babylon, sent home to rebuild the holy city and live in renewed freedom and right relationship with God. It was a time of excitement and hope. It was the same hope-filled anticipation that the first european settlers of this land experienced when they heard the cry, “LAND!” Whether it was the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, the party of Lord Baltimore arriving at St. Clement’s Island just down river from DC, or the first settlers of Jamestown… this land promised a chance to live in right relationship with God by living in right relationship with each other. Thus did John Winthrop (Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1630) appropriate Biblical language to define this new land as the city on the hill. President Kennedy would later recall that language (1961):
I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. “We must always consider”, he said, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us”. Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities. For we are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arbella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less awesome than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within. History will not judge our endeavors—and a government cannot be selected—merely on the basis of color or creed or even party affiliation. Neither will competence and loyalty and stature, while essential to the utmost, suffice in times such as these. For of those to whom much is given, much is required”
As Catholics the new Jerusalem is not primarily an earthly conception, but a vision of the heaven that awaits us. For us the gates of the new Jerusalem are opened by the sacrifice of Christ offered on the cross and perpetuated through our own sacrifices offered in union with his here in the mass. We are called to that sacrifice to get ourselves to heaven… to free souls waiting in purgatory to enter heaven… and to let our neighbors on earth taste of the goodness of heaven in the hopes that they too may join their efforts to Christ’s and find heaven’s fulfillment after death. “I boast only in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ… for neither does circumcision matter nor does uncircumcision by only new creation.” (cf. Gal. 6:14-18) Our focus is heaven.
I was excited to see that focus clearly at work in the high school students with whom I spent this last week. They discerned how Jesus has touched their lives… and how they can spread each of their stories through different evangelization tools. They learned about different opportunities to serve their neighbor… they learned how to put together and give a witness talk… and, particularly exciting: they learned to transfer that whole experience to social media using the net to spread the joy of being on their way to the new Jerusalem.
The Catholic vision of the new Jerusalem, and the historic American vision of the city on the hill are complimentary. Under Gospel inspiration we desire to serve the common good of our nation – our neighbors – peacefully, prayerfully, through work and civil discourse. The students on retreat modeled this desire so beautifully for me. Under Christ’s inspiration we are invited to serve all even when our hard work is rejected by those same neighbors… even if – as was the case for Jesus – those same neighbors nail us to the cross. This too, our high school students have experienced. They persevere joining Christ on the cross… trying to give a taste of the new Jerusalem on earth… but aiming ultimately to reach it in heaven. It reminds me of something Cardinal Ratzinger said in his homily for the opening of the conclave that would eventually elect him Pope:
“Our ministry is a gift of Christ to humankind, to build up his body – the new world. We live out our ministry in this way, as a gift of Christ to humanity!”
I would like to be like these students each day of my own life.
As we offer up our sacrifices this Independence Day Weekend, the words of President Lincoln beautifully capture our mission as Catholic citizens of these United States:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
God save our blessed Republic. Amen.