On this Fourth of July holiday weekend, as we celebrate the independence of our nation, the scripture readings begin with a word from the great prophet Ezekiel, who lived in the sixth century before Christ. Ezekiel experienced the complete opposite of what we mark today, since he lived at a time when the people of Israel lost their independence—even their status as a sovereign nation—and were sent into exile from their land, living in servitude in Babylon for several generations.
Ezekiel’s historical era was a traumatic one for many of the nations of the ancient middle east, and above all for Israel, having lost its identity as a recognizable state. The exile into Babylon was the start of what secular historians call the diaspora, the dispersal of the Jewish people throughout the nations of the earth. Later, some of the people of Israel would come home to their land in the beautiful moment in their history known as the return from the exile, or, in Hebrew, the Aliyah—the “going up” to Jerusalem.
The process of the Jewish people returning home to Israel and specifically to Jerusalem is paralleled in today’s Gospel reading by Jesus, who at the moment is in his home region of Galilee, but who will soon “go up” to Jerusalem where he will meet his fate. Before beginning his long and gradual journey to Jerusalem he faced rejection in his hometown of Nazareth as its residents scoffed: “‘Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him.”
In response to this dismissal by his neighbors Jesus speaks the famous words: “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house” (Mark 6:3, 4). He did not allow this to keep him from his mission, but as Ezekiel bravely spoke to the people, so too did Jesus, sharing the Good News of the Kingdom of God with the people of Israel and opening to all nations the possibility of redemption.
Like Jesus, we are all on a journey too, for as Saint Paul tells us, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). As we go our way, we are, as peoples of all cultures and countries through Christian history have been, part of a civic nation. In our case we mark our national “feast day” this weekend on the Fourth of July.
Oftentimes through history Christians, and Catholics in particular, have encountered trouble balancing the tension between our national allegiance and our religious convictions. In the United States, Catholics used to be routinely discriminated against in ways that we have all heard of or perhaps even experienced. That is less the case today, now that Catholics have long since entered the mainstream of American civic culture and the structures of economic and political power that accompany it.
Still, we face the danger of being co-opted by groups which may share some, but not all, of our Catholic religious and moral convictions, and which seek to advance some agenda in the Church or in civil society—or both. Remaining firm in our faith, we are reminded this holiday weekend to stand up for what is just, as Ezekiel and Jesus himself did, and to keep our eyes focused on “going up” to our heavenly homeland while always appreciating our freedom as Americans and the sacrifices of those who have upheld that freedom. Then we will be faithful citizens of our nation, and of the Kingdom of God.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Image: Ezekiel as depicted in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo.