Is the Fourth of July a holiday? It is, for most Americans, a day off work. For some, it may even be an occasion for a trip to the beach or the mountains.
But is it a holiday, or feast day, in the traditional sense of the word? Is it a holy day?
In his essay on leisure, the 20th-century German philosopher Josef Pieper claimed that “as a simple statement of fact,” there is no such thing as a holiday “without Gods.”
Pieper’s explanation for that fact rests on the nature of festivity. What marks a holiday, or feast day, as festive is its sense of abundance, its “sphere of real wealth and superfluity, even in the midst of the direst material want.”
If any society enjoys abundance, it’s ours in America, where our gravest public health threat is not a scarcity of food and drink but, rather, their chronic overconsumption.
Yet, according to Pieper, indulgence itself does not indicate abundance, and may well signal its dearth. On the contrary, the abundance that is characteristic of a feast emerges only out of the practice of sacrifice.
Unlike animals, human beings have the unique capacity to deny our own wants, even to the point of denying our most fundamental human need of self-preservation. That is, we have the unique capacity to love.
But sacrificial love makes sense only in light of an eternal order, wherein immaterial goods transcend material ones, which is why Pieper finds a feast “without Gods” impossible.
When we love sacrificially, denying our narrow wants and needs for the sake of spiritual realities greater than ourselves, we discover, Pieper explained, “a real wealth, overflowing and superfluous, neither tied nor limited by end or aim: the holiday and feast.”
We live in a cynical age, however, in which the notion of sacrifice, not to mention patriotic sacrifice, is suspect. This can make it difficult to see anything sacred about the Fourth of July.
Independence Day marks the anniversary, after all, not of divine revelation, but of political revolution. It memorializes not a sacred text, but a political text. It was ordained not by a church, but by the state. What could possibly be holy about red, white, and blue fireworks?
Yet, in a letter to his wife just after the American colonies resolved to adopt the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote with hope that the day would become “the great anniversary Festival.” Adams expected that it would be “commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance,” first “by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty,” then followed by “Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.”
Why did Adams, who became our second president, deem this modern day of independence an occasion for religious solemnity?
The Declaration of Independence offers answers in the document itself, which manifests devotion to divine truths:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
In confessing faith in these truths, the authors and signers of the declaration proclaimed the reason why this “one people,” as they put it, exists. We owe our birth to the Creator, who, in blessing man with inviolable rights, made possible the work that the Founders undertook.
We persist as a people to secure and use that liberty well, that we may live up to the imago Dei conferred upon us by our Creator. We persist so that we may flourish.
Hence, when the signers concluded the document by “mutually pledg[ing] to each other [their] Lives, [their] Fortunes, and [their] sacred Honor,” they did so not simply for the support of a new nation, but “for the support of this Declaration,” which declares more than independence. It declares the laws of “Nature’s God.”
In dedicating not just their material goods—their bodily strength and physical possessions—but the highest gift they could give—their sacred honor—to the cause, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, the signers offered themselves for the sake of spiritual truths about God and the human person.
This is not to claim that the fullness of those truths was realized in 1776, nor that we live up to them today, for that matter.
What a revisitation of the Declaration of Independence elucidates, rather, is the spiritual reality at the heart of the meaning of the Fourth of July, and the sacrifice that it calls forth.
As Adams admitted in his letter to his wife, he was “well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure that it w[ould] cost Us to maintain this Declaration,” not just for the duration of the Revolutionary War, but for the duration of America herself. He was well aware, as he put it, that a genuine commemoration of Independence Day would require “solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty.”
The Fourth of July is a holy day, but we will experience its holiday festivity only if we heed Adams’ advice and treat it as a day of sacrifice and prayer for our country. This we should do both by giving thanks and praise in our houses of worship and by reviving the tradition of public readings of the declaration, so that we may better contemplate the truths that it holds dear.
Perhaps then we can join Adams in claiming “through all the Gloom” to “see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory.”
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