On this day in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt took the oath of office to become the 32nd president of the United States. With unemployment during the election year at over 23%, Roosevelt handily defeated the Republican candidate, then-President Herbert Hoover. It had been 56 years since a Democratic candidate had won a majority of the popular vote. There would be a Democrat in the White House for the next 20 years. It was also the final inauguration to be held on the prescribed date of March 4. The Twentieth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, ratified less than two months before FDR was sworn in, required all subsequent inaugurations to take place on January 20.
Sworn in on the east portico of the Capitol Building, Roosevelt took the oath of office with his hand on a family Bible opened to I Corinthians 13, the famous “love chapter” of the Bible. The Dutch-language Bible, published in 1686, remains the oldest Bible ever used in an inaugural ceremony, as well as the only one non-English translation. Roosevelt’s inaugural speech was a ray of hope on an otherwise dreary day. Speaking in a cold, driving rain, FDR assured Depression-weary Americans that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He also outlined his “New Deal,” a network of government programs designed to energize the U.S. economy. Buoyed by his optimistic vision, Americans united behind their new president, who proved to be so popular that he was elected to a record four terms.
Government has its place and purpose, but it can’t bring a “new deal” to our hearts. Only God can transform a human being from the inside out. In his letter to the Galatian church, Paul flatly stated that circumcision or uncircumcision meant nothing. In the original language of the Bible, he was conveying the thought that these outward physical signs had no strength or power. Modern ears do not hear the outrageousness of Paul’s statement. For an observant Jew, however, it was as offensive as an American patriot hearing someone say, “Saluting the flag is not important.” After all, circumcision had been holy law since the days of Abraham, a command from God Himself: “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised” (Genesis 17:10 NASB). Of all people, Paul knew the significance of circumcision; he was a righteous Pharisee who had the Bible down pat. However, after his dazzling encounter with the Glorified Christ, Paul came to know the greater value of a circumcised heart, a heart that had submitted to divine surgery. When God cuts away sin, a new creation comes forth, like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis that had held a plodding, earthbound caterpillar. “I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26 NET).
Lenten rituals, church traditions, and spiritual disciplines can be meaningful – but they are not to be idolized. They can either serve as paths to Christ, or roads that lead to the form of religion without the power. We can be “in prayer” or “in church,” but still our hearts can be far away from God. We must be “in Christ” for the power to take effect.