Some of my friends have commented that one great thing about living the liturgical year is the way that the Church's Scripture passages for the day really seem to speak to things going on in one's life. I've been in the habit for a few years now of reading the daily Mass readings at the beginning of my day. My husband and I also try to do lauds (morning prayer) and vespers (evening prayer) together each day.
Today in the United States is a national holiday known as Independence Day. I grew up in a pretty patriotic family, but since my college days and beyond, I've had ambiguous feelings about this country of ours. It's one of the richest in the world and yet doesn't seem to be able adequately to help its own poor. It has admirable values, like freedom, but they seem to be manifest in its citizens in credit debt, materialism, obesity, and drug addiction. The celebrated "equality" itself has a complex history, and minorities continue to suffer institutionalized and personal discrimination. This country where women have equal "rights" also has a multibillion dollar pornography industry and inadequate maternity leaves.
When I opened my prayer book this morning, I had this American ambivalence in mind. Friday - the day of our Lord's death - has traditionally been a Catholic day of repentance, sacrifice, fasting, and abstention from meat. The words of Psalm 51 echoed with me so much this morning that I read it twice:
"Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness.
In your compassion, blot out my offense.
Oh wash me more and more from my guilt,
and cleanse me from my sin.
My offenses truly I know them,
My sin is always before me,
Against you, you alone, have I sinned.
What is evil in your sight I have done,
That you may be justified wihen you give sentence
and be without reproach when you judge.
O see, in guilt I was born,
a sinner was I conceived.
Inded you love truth in the heart;
then in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom.
O purify me, then I shall be clean;
O wash me, I shall be whiter than snow.
Make me hear rejoicing and gladness,
that the bones you have crushed may revive
From my sins turn away your face
and blot out all my guilt.
A pure heart creat for me, O God,
put a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
nor deprive me of your holy spirit.
Give me again the joy of your help;
with a spirit of fervor sustain me,
that I may teach transgressors your ways
and sinners may return to you.
O rescue me, God, my helper,
and my tongue shall ring out your goodness.
O Lord, open my lips
and my mouth shall declare your praise.
For in sacrifice you take no delight,
burnt offering from me you would refuse,
my sacrifice, a contrite spirit.
A humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn.
In your goodness, show favor to Zion:
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will be pleased with lawful sacrifice,
holocausts offered on your altar."
I have to admit that living an American lifestyle makes me feel implicated in social sin at nearly every turn - from my sweatshop clothes to my daughter's Chinese factory made toys to bananas imported from Ecuador at unjust prices to the abundance of clean water that I waste to the enormous amount of trash that my small family creates. As if to impress this call for repentance more firmly upon me, today's first reading is from the book of Amos 8:4-6, 9-12:
"Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land!“When will the new moon be over,” you ask,“that we may sell our grain, and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat?” We will diminish the containers for measuring, add to the weights,and fix our scales for cheating! We will buy the lowly man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals;even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!
On that day, says the Lord GOD, I will make the sun set at midday and cover the earth with darkness in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentations.I will cover the loins of all with sackcloth and make every head bald. I will make them mourn as for an only son, and bring their day to a bitter end. Yes, days are coming, says the Lord GOD,when I will send famine upon the land: Not a famine of bread, or thirst for water, but for hearing the word of the LORD. Then shall they wander from sea to sea and rove from the north to the east in search of the word of the LORD,but they shall not find it."
On the liturgical calendar for today, Catholics celebrate the feast of St. Elizabeth of Portugal. She is the great-niece of my patron (Elizabeth of Hungary) and the patron of Portugal. She was born of royalty and married to the king of Portugal when she was only 12. She was mother to two children, and arranged her day in order that she could attend Mass and recite the Divine Office daily. As queen she did all she could to help the needy: the sick, travelers, women, and abandoned infants. In her own family, she was a peacemaker, as she ended a long-standing family dispute.
When her husband died, she gave all of her property to the poor and became a Third Order Franciscan, continuing to work for the poor and for peace for the remaining eleven years of her life. Today we celebrate her passing on to eternal life.
In many ways, it seems that Elizabeth of Portugal can stand as a model for Americans. All that she did, whether motherhood or caring for the poor, was rooted in her prayer life. She used her wealth to help the needy around her. When the time presented itself, she abandoned this temporal wealth to seek more fully eternal wealth. She devoted herself fully to making peace. We American Catholics ought to be inspired by such a life to do penance for our sins against humanity, and to live lives that are worthy of our true citizenship in the Kingdom of God.