Today is the 4th of July, the 235th birthday of our nation, as it were. I’m not entirely sure what I’ll be doing yet, but I anticipate various grilled and delicious foods, a lot of relaxing, and hopefully some illegal fireworks. Among our current Federal holidays, Independence Day is one of the more straightforward and worthy of the days to close our banks and post offices, I think (Washington’s b-day, Labor Day, and Columbus Day I have my reservations about). The beginning of a nation, especially one founded on a set of principles and not merely geography or a distinct racial identity, is monumental. It’s even more so when that beginning is intrinsically bound with the ending of its prior identity as a set of colonies belonging to another nation, hence Independence Day. Though we often memorialize that set of principles on the 4th as the basis for declaring independence, the holiday is primarily for celebrating the reality of independence itself. Since independence is a reality, a definite and verifiable situation or condition, and if it were not always so, it must logically have an origin or starting point. I think it’s interesting that we commemorate that starting point on the anniversary of the ratifying of the Declaration of Independence.
Why? There are a couple other dates we might recognize as the official beginning of our nation’s status as independent from Great Britain. We might recognize the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the “official” document recognized by both the U.S. and Great Britain, in 1783 as our moment of independence. We actually commemorate the ratifying of that document by our congress in 1784 as “Ratification Day.” We might hail the American military victory of the revolutionary war in 1781 as our moment of independence. The signing of the Declaration could have been viewed as merely the declaration of intent, with the successful accomplishing of that goal lauded as our truly realized independence. But we chose to recognize the 4th of July, 1776 as Independence Day.
It’s interesting that as a society that values data, results, and empiricism so much, we still instinctually understand the concept of creating a new reality with a symbolic act — even if it’s a reality that seems to contradict the current observable data. For example, British redcoats policing American cities at the moment of the signing of the Declaration hardly supports an objective assertion that America was then independent. But again, it’s the date of our declaring independence that we celebrate as the changing of our country’s status to independent. There are other claimed realities in the world that seem to contradict observable data. For the Christian, of course the grandest and most obvious claim is that Christ is the ruler of this world. And the Church just recently commemorated the commencement of that reality on the Feast of the Ascension.
The Feast of the Ascension marks the beginning of Jesus’ current reign, because the ascension of Jesus was nothing less than his ascent to the throne. We affirm that “he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father,” which is another way of saying that he took his place as the ruler of this world. Ascension Day is the anniversary of Christ’s coronation. So why is the ascension often seen as Jesus’ going away for a while and leaving everything up to his disciples? In other words, why is Jesus perceived as absent? Well, the observable data regularly seems to support that notion. Wars, sickness, injustice, and depravity of all kinds not only exist but are prevalent throughout the world. The Church, however, maintains that the presence of these evils does not change the status of Jesus as the reigning king of this world. What grounds does the Church have for making such an assertion?
For one, the same narrative that describes Jesus’ ascension subsequently describes his active engagement with the world. Stephen the protomartyr, just before his death, sees Jesus standing in heaven beside the Father, and later Saul is spoken to by Jesus and is blinded while on his way to persecute believers. Luke clearly communicates that Jesus is not absent or disengaged. The rest of the New Testament bears this out as well. The community of the Church throughout the ages has likewise affirmed the presence of Jesus and his status as King, despite everything that remains resistant and rebellious toward his rule. Scripture and Tradition assert this reality though it’s impossible now to substantiate it empirically.
When we look out the window or glance at the headlines and it’s hard for us to apprehend this reality, faith is what drives us to affirm it anyway. Even John the Baptizer, forerunner to the Christ, from his prison cell where he awaited his own execution, struggled to reconcile his expectations regarding the arrival of Israel’s messiah with the actual circumstances of Jesus’ ministry. Faith helps us affirm truth when empiricism fails us. More than that, faith moves us to act, to work, to struggle for the realization of that truth — to see the reality of Christ’s lordship implemented through our obedience to him. We make Christ’s rule evident in the world by living out our lives as people who belong to his kingdom. Before independence was obvious, the colonials reckoned themselves citizens of a new nation. As Christians we reckon ourselves citizens of heaven, remembering Christ’s ascension, affirming even now his kingship, and eagerly awaiting the consummation of that reality, when our faith shall be sight.