Having been a resident of Washington for 10 years, I was privileged to witness three presidential inaugurations. Despite the fact that the ceremonies were for representatives of different political parties, and the fact that one was a reelection, the same excitement permeated the air for each of them.
I think that’s because inaugurations speak to our innate need to start over from time to time, to express new hopes and fears, to realign our priorities and make sure the path we’re walking on is the right one. We relish the opportunity to turn the page and gaze upon a blank one that’s wide open with possibility.
My favorite part of any Inauguration Day is the speech. As a former speechwriter, I love to dissect why each word might have been chosen, how the speaker’s cadence affects the length and how the text reveals how well our leaders know themselves and us, their fellow countrymen. It’s how we learn what their priorities will be and how they align with ours.
In his inaugural address, President George Washington confessed his doubts about assuming the office, citing his own deficiencies. At the same time, he assured his fellow citizens that God, the “Great Author of every public and private good” would keep the United States of America under his providential care. His speech could be summarized: “This is bigger than you and me, and that’s a good thing.” It speaks to the perennial need to know our place in the larger scheme of things.
President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address was a somber call for peace: He recounted how the cause of the war — the expansion of slavery — had been rendered null and void by the Emancipation Proclamation, yet the war raged on. His hope was for unity and a “just and lasting peace”: maybe not that day, or in the years of his second administration, but someday. His was a call for citizens to have “malice toward none” and “charity for all.” It was a bold, biblical summons to mercy and communion.
Our first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, focused on uniting countries around the world in the common cause of protecting liberty, given to us by God. He called on fellow citizens and global friends to work for peace against the backdrop of a deadly arms race. Of the moral quandary of the modern era, President Kennedy said, “For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.” It was a speech rousing his fellow Americans to self-sacrifice and moral greatness.
The greatest inaugural address in history is not a political one but a biblical one. It addresses the deepest longings of the human heart, not only by the words spoken but because it was the Word speaking them.
Such is the address that Jesus gives at the beginning of his public ministry, when he recites the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Lk 4:18-19).
And then, he speaks the words that all long to hear: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21).
Each year, just after celebrating the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the church should contemplate this Gospel. It’s our annual call to renewal, to keep our minds fixed on the most important truth we hold, that which grounds our life, liberty and happiness: Jesus is the long-awaited savior who is present in our midst. Sweeter words have yet to be spoken.
Elise Italiano Ureneck is a communications consultant and is a columnist for Catholic News Service.