Today is Evacuation Day.
For those of you who didn’t grow up or haven’t spent any time in the Boston area, Evacuation Day commemorates the conclusion of the eleven-month Siege of Boston, when the British Army evacuated from Boston to Nova Scotia early in the Revolutionary War. While it was George Washington’s first victory of the war and represented a morale boost to the beleaguered Continental Army, it wasn’t a terribly significant military victory. Once the British had (easily) captured New York City, New England was almost completely cut off from the rest of the colonies, meaning that the rest of the war was mostly fought in the southern colonies. So why does Boston close its schools and public offices to observe the anniversary of this relatively unimportant military victory? Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that it’s also St. Patrick’s Day.
If you know anything about American cultural history, you know that being from Boston in the 19th and early 20th centuries was practically synonymous with being Irish. By the late 1800s, people of Irish descent lived throughout the city, and Irish politicians had, in turn, come to dominate the local Boston political establishment. So when seeking an opportunity to reward their constituents with a day off on St. Patrick’s Day, these pols combed the annals of Boston history to discover any event of significance that had taken place on March 17th. Thus, in 1901, the people of Boston began celebrating Evacuation Day with a St. Patrick’s Day parade and other celebrations of Irish culture.
While there is an element of this story that is politics-as-usual, there is also something beautiful about it. In some ways, it is the embodiment of the American ideal: an ethnic group becomes so immersed in American life that the line between “American culture” and “Irish culture” almost ceases to exist. Individuals are shaped not only by what they have been, but also by what they are becoming. Ideally, this is what the Christian life is supposed to look like. We enter into the community of the Church shaped by our past experiences and influenced by the people we have known. As we grow into our life in Christ we embrace new opportunities and new experiences; we are shaped by our relationship with other members of Christ’s body and transformed by our relationship with Christ himself. In the meantime, however, we’re not meant to lose our sense of ourselves. We are still who we were before, but our humanity and our sense of being a part of God’s creation has been renewed by Christ and his Church. The season of Lent is our opportunity to embrace this renewal, to be mindful of the reality that we are shaped not only by what we have been, but by what we are becoming.