Evangelical Common Worship on National Holidays

In general, we come to common worship from a week in which a secular society has tried to shape our identity as something radically different than what Scripture says it is. Having moved God to the edges of life, a secular society values people not on the basis of their having been created by and loved by God—which makes each of us of enormous value. Instead, our culture usually measures value in terms of what we can do or accomplish. Why is it that the first question usually asked in a social situation is “What do you do?” Consider how our society treats those who are unable to produce or accomplish much—the unborn, children, elderly, sick, unemployed, underemployed, addicted, and mentally ill. Preaching that moves from “my problem(s)” to “solutions” often tends to support the secular way of looking at value and means we tend to think of our identity not in terms of our relationship with God but in terms of what we can produce. The problem is that

when we seek a different identity derived from anything other than God, we don’t actually become different but only return to the nothingness we were before God created our lives. This is what gathers in the pews of church every Sunday—creatures who believed the serpent’s lie that their identity could be changed by reaching for something other than what they were given by the Creator. Some believed they could get a different, preferred identity if they only got married. Others thought they just needed to find a better job or buy a better home in order to have a better life. . . . And all that the reach for a different source to their identity has left them with is souls filled with primordial nothingness. (Barnes)

Preaching that offers more of the same stuff, the same approach as our society, or that merely adds some kind of thin Christian veneer to the self-absorbed approach to life of the surrounding culture has been deeply secularized…. Our real identity as human beings, according to the Bible, is our identity as creatures, as children of the God made known to us best in Jesus Christ, and that is not only sufficient but also the only place we will find our true identity.

Funeral commemorations for Otto von Habsburg in Pöcking, Bavaria (Wikimedia Commons, Mocctur)
Funeral commemorations for Otto von Habsburg in Pöcking, Bavaria (Wikimedia Commons, Mocctur)

For centuries, members of the powerful Habsburg family that ruled the Austrian Empire (later Austria-Hungary) have been entombed in the Capuchin Church in Vienna. The most recent such entombment took place in 2011 for Otto von Habsburg, eldest son of the last emperor who actually reigned before the dissolution of the empire at the end of the First World War. In accordance with ancient custom, when the coffin carrying Otto von Habsburg’s body arrived at the gates of the church, accompanied by the mourners, a herald knocked at the door. Inside, a Capuchin monk responded by asking, “Who demands entry?” The herald answered by listing all the royal and noble titles of the deceased:

Otto of Austria; former Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary; Prince Royal of Hungary and Bohemia, of Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, Lodomeria, and Illyria; Grand Duke of Tuscany and Cracow; Duke of Lorraine, of Salzburg, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola and Bukowina; Grand Prince of Siebenbürgen, Margrave of Moravia; Duke of Silesia, Modena, Parma, Piacenza, Guastalla, Oświęcim and Zator, Teschen, Friaul, Dubrovnik and Zadar; Princely Count of Habsburg and Tyrol, of Kyburg, Gorizia and Gradisca; Prince of Trento and Brixen; Margrave of Upper and Lower Lusatia and Istria; Count of Hohenems, Feldkirch, Bregenz, Sonnenburg, etc.; Lord of Trieste, Kotor and Windic March, Grand Voivod of the Voivodeship of Serbia etc., etc.

“Queen Zita of Hungary and Crown Prince Otto of Hungary (Otto von Habsburg) arrive at the royal palace in Budapest on coronation day,” Gyula Elder
“Queen Zita of Hungary and Crown Prince Otto of Hungary arrive at the royal palace in Budapest on coronation day,” Gyula Elder

The Capuchin monk responded, “We do not know him.” The herald knocked a second time. Again the monk asked, “Who demands entry?” and this time the herald responded by listing Otto’s numerous and impressive accomplishments, which included an earned PhD, authorship of dozens of books, and helping thousands of Jews to escape the Nazis during the Second World War. Habsburg had opposed the Nazi annexation of Austria, for which he was sentenced to death and had his personal and family property confiscated by the Nazis. He served as a member of the European Parliament, championed the cause of refugees and the sanctity of human life. But the Capuchin friar again responded, “We do not know him.” Finally the herald knocked a third time, and once more the monk asked, “Who demands entry?” This time the herald responded simply, “Otto, a sinful human being.” The monk inside at last replied, “Thus he may enter,” and the doors were finally opened. Just as for Otto von Habsburg, our real identity has nothing to do—as our secular society insists—with our societal position or achievements. Our real identity is found in our having been created by and loved by God. Period. Full stop.

Special care is needed with sermons preached on Sundays falling on or close to national holidays. It is frighteningly easy for such worship services and their sermons to become outstanding examples of Constantinian Christianity. Many evangelicals seem to have inordinate difficulty with the psalm writer’s injunction to “Praise the LORD, O my soul” (Ps 146:1, AV) as opposed to putting our “trust in princes . . . in whom there is no help” (Ps 146:3, AV). Morning worship can become an hour or two spent praising not God but one’s country, its values and distinctives, heroic historical figures, or supposed (but frequently historically and theologically untrue) “Christian” origins, values, and foundation or the supposed (again often historically and theologically untrue) Christian faith of national figures. How is all this to be avoided? Short of ignoring the national observance entirely—an approach some clergy have in fact taken—references in the sermon to a national holiday should be relatively minor. Both the sermon and the entire worship service should make it patently clear that God and country are not identical, that for the follower of Jesus Christ, it can never be “my country, right or wrong.”

Source: M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life,
in Calvin Institute Series, ed. Witvliet (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 2009) 9.

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This post originally appeared in Countercultural Worship by Mark G. McKim.

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