In a letter to his wife on the eve of July 4, 1776, he describes what he thinks this day should entail for future generations.
John Adams wrote a remarkable letter to his beloved wife Abigail on July 3, 1776. On the eve of what was to be Independence Day, Adams wrote, “I am apt to believe that (Independence Day) will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.”
Adams went on to say exactly how he thought the day should be spent. Beginning as a man of faith, Adams says, “It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.” Furthermore, he continues, “It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”
Adams’ words have the ring of prophecy. Our own celebrations map exactly what he describes. But the deeper question we have to ask is: Why did Adams believe the Fourth of July would be important? Moreover, why is it important to us?
Did Adams wish to solemnize the heroism of the signers of the document? Was he looking to form new customs and traditions for the emerging nation? Was he hoping to use the occasion for his own political gain to celebrate this or that cause? And what are we to make of all this?
Scripture and the mystery of Freedom
Adams’ own devotion to the Fourth of July for us offers an opportunity to reflect on the great ideal of freedom. Delightfully, by a conspiracy of Divine Providence, this is the mystery of today’s Scripture readings at Mass. What does freedom mean for us? Are we able to name and express it?
During the commissioning of the Prophet Ezekiel, the Lord assures the prophet that he may not be successful according to his own hopes or desires. The Lord reminds the prophet that Israel is a stubborn nation. However, Scripture says, “And whether they heed or resist—for they are a rebellious house—they shall know that a prophet has been among them” (Ez 2:5). Israel has the freedomto assent to or to reject the prophet’s call to repentance. Israel is free to obey the word of the Lord or to defy it.
The same mystery of freedom is presented in the encounter of Jesus and the people of Nazareth. The Lord returns to his home and preaches in the synagogue at Nazareth. And the Gospel tells us, “He was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith” (Mk 6:5-6).
The people of Nazareth found themselves face-to-face with Christ, and yet they did not believe. In their freedom, they inhibited the work of Jesus, unable to cooperate with the offer of his healing power, with the labor of Divine grace.
Freedom for Excellence
In these encounters and many other places in the Scriptures, we see that people are free to embrace God’s plan or to spurn it. And this is the heart of the mystery of freedom: Whenever we choose to cooperate with God, to act according to his plans (following the revealed and natural moral law) it is then that we are truly, most profoundly free.
The Belgian Dominican moral theologian Servais Pinckaers named this phenomenon freedom for excellence. Father Pinckaers describes freedom for excellence, saying, “It is the power to engage in excellent actions, actions that are both good and true.”
For Father Pinckaers, this is not a morality of obligation or law, but a principle of happiness and a motivation to pursue virtue and upright living.
Excellent is acquired, built, and refined, like the skill of playing an instrument or the painting of a picture. When asked what freedom is or what it is for, many today would probably say something akin to, “It’s the ability to do whatever I want.” And yet this kind of assertion makes oneself the arbiter of the moral life, the end or goal of action.
The goal of Freedom: Happiness
For Father Pinckaers, the great problem of Christian morality of the 20th century was that a divorce had occurred between morality (freedom) and happiness. He argues that freedom for excellence is the key to renewal. Freedom is the condition, the state which allows virtue to flourish, making it possible for us to choose the good, to want to follow Christ and discover the joy of such a way of life. Gospel-living promises the greatest happiness that can be had on this side of eternity, and even greater happiness thereafter.
Similarly, John Adams, again writing to Abigail, says, “It should be your care, therefore, and mine, to elevate the minds of our children and exalt their courage; to accelerate and animate their industry and activity; to excite in them an habitual contempt of meanness, abhorrence of injustice and inhumanity, and an ambition to a excel in every capacity, faculty, and virtue.”
Adams’ optimism should be our own, like him we should desire such virtue and excellence for ourselves, and our sons and daughters.
Let today then be a celebration of freedom, not for freedom’s own sake, but recognizing it for what it is. Freedom, the great gift of Almighty God, is not its own end. Nor are we human beings its arbiter. But in freedom, we can choose to be good. And in choosing to be good, we will be happy.