The Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Freedom!

Today’s readings

“For freedom Christ set us free.” So writes Saint Paul in our second reading today. And it’s a beautiful reflection for this weekend, when we are getting ready for our Independence Day celebrations. When our nation’s founders set up this fledgling republic 243 years ago, freedom was certainly one of their primary concerns. Freedom of religion was of primary importance, and they also held dear freedom of expression, freedom of association, and many others. We are the beneficiaries of their hard work. As “they” say, freedom isn’t free, it is purchased at a price, and at this time of year we remember with gratitude those who paid that price for us, and those who continue to do so in the military every day.

In that second reading, Saint Paul is reflecting on the freedom that the early Christians had. This freedom was a freedom from the constraints of the myriad of laws that they observed, laws that encouraged people to replace true devotion to the spirit of the law with mere surface-level observance of the letter of the law. Paul reminds them that their freedom was purchased at the incredible price of the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ the Lord who died that they, and we, might have life.

For the Galatians, as well as for all of us, freedom had to be defined a little more exactly, and that was St. Paul’s purpose in today’s second reading. Because freedom isn’t free, it can’t be taken lightly or casually, and so he makes it clear what the freedom truly is. The Galatians had the mistaken notion that freedom meant the same thing as license, which isn’t the case at all. Freedom didn’t mean license to act against the law and to live lives of immorality and corruption. That would be replacing one form of slavery with another, really, since immorality has its own chains. Anyone struggling with a pattern of sin or addiction will tell you that. The freedom Christ won for us is a freedom to live joyful lives of dedication and devotion and discipleship, all caught up in the very life of God. Real freedom looses us from the bonds of the world and sets us free to bind ourselves to God, who created us for himself. Real freedom is freedom to be who we have been created to be.

This distinction between true freedom and license for immorality is one that we must take seriously even in our own day, as we prepare to celebrate our nation’s own independence. Because in our own day, we too have confused the freedom we have inherited from our founders with a license to do whatever the heck we want. And that, brothers and sisters in Christ, is not the gift we have been given. Freedom of expression doesn’t mean we have the right to express ourselves in a way that slanders or ridicules others. And if you don’t think that’s an issue, just listen to some talk radio or watch some daytime television, or perhaps listen to any of the current campaigning for office, or even the debate of our state legislature’s last session. Freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion, and it doesn’t mean that we have to practice our faith in secret and not let people know that Jesus Christ is Lord by the way we live and talk. And you know that’s an issue: in the courts, in our places of business and our schools, and in our communities. Being free doesn’t mean we have license to do whatever we want; being free means we are free to better ourselves, our families, our churches and our communities. Real freedom is freedom to be who we have been created to be.

This freedom to be who we have been created to be is a matter of some urgency for Elisha in today’s first reading and the would-be disciples that Jesus met in today’s Gospel. All of them received the message that when God calls, the time to answer is now. But all of them found that there were things going on inside them that kept them from answering the call; that kept them from being free to follow God in the way they were created to do that.

Certainly the rebukes they all received seem a bit harsh to our ears. After all, they had good excuses, didn’t they? Who would deny a person the right to say goodbye to their families or bury their dead? But there are a couple of subtle distinctions that we have to get here. First, it wasn’t as if they had ever been told to follow the call instead of taking care of family and burying the dead. Yet they were using those things as an excuse to put off their response to God’s call. Second, following God’s call very well could have meant doing those exact things they were involved in, but in a way that honored God. The call was to put God first, and one could conceivably do that and still take care of family, friends and business.

What’s at issue here is right relationship. Responding to God’s call must always come first, but responding to God’s call may mean raising one’s family, tending to a sick parent or elderly relative, reading to one’s children, grieving the loss of a loved one or battling an illness. It’s a matter of priorities, and true freedom means putting God first in all of that, trusting that God will help us to make sense of it all.

It’s important to know that God pretty much always calls people out of the ordinariness of their lives. That was true of Elisha today. He was minding his own business – literally – by plowing the fields. And yet he gives it all up on the spot to follow God as Elijah’s successor. It must have been an incredibly moving event for Elisha, because he was so excited that he ran back, slaughtered his oxen and chopped up the yokes to use as fuel to cook the flesh and feed his people. Doing that was a complete break with his former life, and showed the lengths to which he was ready to go in order to do God’s will.

On this Independence Day, may we all remember that true freedom doesn’t mean doing whatever we want, regardless of the implications for others and ignorant of our relationship with God. I hope we remember that true freedom doesn’t mean license to live an immoral life. Instead, true freedom is about living the life God has called us to live and following as committed disciples, free to be caught up in the life of God. True freedom means breaking with anything that holds us back from becoming the free sons and daughters of God we were created to be. True freedom means putting God first and serving him in the ordinariness of our lives, following his call to our dying breath. True freedom means finding the same joy that our Psalmist finds today when he sings, “You are my inheritance, O Lord.”

Independence Day

Today’s readings: Isaiah 57:15-19 | Philippians 4:6-9 | John 14:23-29

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. 

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

So begins our nation’s Declaration of Independence, a document of inestimable worth, authored by passionate men.  The independence that document brought came at the price of many lives, and so that independence and the rights it brought forth, must always be vigorously defended and steadfastly maintained.  Almost 200 years later, the bishops of the Church, gathered in synod for the second Vatican Council, spoke boldly of the specific liberty of religious freedom.  They wrote:

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits. 

The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.  (Dignitatis Humanae, 2.)

So the Church teaches that the right to free practice of religion belongs to each person as part of their fundamental human dignity.  A person’s right to form a relationship with, worship, and live in accord with the God who created them is foundational to all civil liberties.  And while having this right in a nation’s constitution is important, actually putting it into practice is another matter entirely.

In our nation, the free practice of religion was so important that those passionate men took the radical step of breaking ties with the country of their patrimony, and forging a new nation.  Because of that, we have inherited the freedom they fought hard to arrange.  But again, we have to be vigilant to protect that freedom, or it can become just words on paper.

Freedom of religion was never intended to be freedom from religion, a notion that well-meaning agnostics, atheists and secularists have sought diligently to popularize.  The Church teaches that true freedom isn’t some misguided notion of being able to do whatever on earth we want, regardless of the needs and rights of others: our own freedoms are never meant to impinge on the freedom of another.  As Saint John Paul said, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”

So it is important on this Independence Day, to take a stand for freedom that is truly free, to defend the freedom to which our Founding Fathers dedicated their lives, and to insist that our freedoms are not just freedoms on paper, but instead, true freedoms, extended to every person.  Because it is that freedom that leads us to our God.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives to his Apostles, and to us, the peace that comes from the  abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  That Spirit leads us to truth and peace and ultimately into the presence of God himself.  Blessed are we, free are we, when we put aside everything that gets in the way of the Spirit’s action in our lives and impinges on our true freedom to walk with our God.

In the last line of the Declaration of Independence, our forefathers pledged themselves to the great task of building a nation based on freedom: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”  They gave everything so that we might all be free.  May we always make the same pledge that our nation may always be great.

Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

Today’s readings

Today we celebrate a feast that is a bit unusual for us.  First of all, it’s a saint’s feast day, and saints’ days don’t usually take precedence over a Sunday celebration.  Secondly, whenever we do celebrate a saint’s day, it is usually celebrated on the feast of their death, not their birth.  But today we do gather to celebrate the birth of a saint, Saint John the Baptist, and the fact that we’re celebrating his birth and his day at all on this Sunday points to the fact that St. John the Baptist had a very special role to play in the life of Christ.  In fact, the only other saint for whom we celebrate a birthday is the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that tells us something about how important John the Baptist is.

Just as for Jesus, we don’t know the precise day John the Baptist was born.  So the feast of their Nativities – their births – was a tradition developed by the early Church. The dates the Church selected are significant.  Jesus’ birthday was placed around the time of the winter solstice, mostly to counteract pagan festivals of the coming of winter.  John the Baptist’s birthday was then placed around the time of the summer solstice for similar reasons.  But there’s more to it even than that.  In the Gospel of John, there is a passage where John the Baptist says of himself and Jesus, “I must decrease, he must increase.”  So John’s birthday is placed at the time when the days start to become shorter, and Jesus’ birthday is placed at the time when the days start to become longer.  John the Baptist must decrease, Jesus must increase.

Today’s readings have a lot to do with who the prophet is.  St. John the Baptist was the last prophet of the old order, and his mission was to herald the coming of Jesus Christ who is himself the new order.  Tradition holds that prophets were created for their mission, that their purpose was laid out while they were yet to be born.  Isaiah, one of the great prophets of the old order, tells us of his commissioning in our first reading today.  He says, “The LORD called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.”  The rest of the reading tells us of his mission, a mission of hardship, but one of being compelled to speak the word of god as a sharp-edged sword.  His calling began as a call to preach to his own people, but by the end of the reading, it is clear that that commission became a call to preach to every nation on earth.

Isaiah says that he was given his name while in his mother’s womb.  The same was true of St. John the Baptist, whose name was given to Zechariah and Elizabeth by the Angel Gabriel.  There’s a dubious story in my own family’s history that my mother had my name picked out from the time she was twelve.  But it’s pretty hard for me to believe that a young Italian woman would have picked the name Patrick Michael for her son.  But that’s how the story goes.  Names have meaning.  Maybe you know what your name means.  I looked mine up this week and found that Patrick means “nobleman,” so if you feel like bowing when you see me, it seems like that would be appropriate!  But far more significant are the names of the prophets we encounter in today’s Liturgy of the Word.  Isaiah means “Yahweh is salvation,” which pretty much encompassed the meaning of Isaiah’s mission, proclaiming salvation to the Israelites who were oppressed in exile.  The name given to the Baptist, John, means “God has shown favor.”  And that was in fact the message of his life.  He came to pave the way for Jesus Christ, who was the favor of God shown to the whole human race.

The point is, these men were created for their prophetic calling.  That’s true for us too.  All of us who have been baptized have a prophetic calling that came before we were ever born.  God created us for something special.  He created us to be with him, he created us to follow him, he created us to draw other people to him.  This means that, according to our abilities, our vocation and station in life, we were meant to serve God in some way that God might be glorified and that others may come to know him.

During these couple of weeks, we have been asked to observe a fortnight of religious freedom.  As our nation’s bishops point out, religious freedom is one of our first and most cherished freedoms.  It was largely in pursuit of religious freedom that our nation’s forefathers came to this great land, and in defense of that freedom that they fought and died.  But now, many issues have put that freedom in danger.  The so-called HHS mandate is kind of the banner issue on the religious freedom front.  The HHS mandate requires all employers to pay for birth control regardless of whether it is against their moral teachings, as it is for us.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Another sad assault on religious freedom has been the requirement of any adoption placement agency to place children for adoption with people in same-sex unions.  Since our religion forbids this practice, we have been unable to comply, and so we have been pushed out of the adoption process, something that has been an extension of our acts of charity since this country began.

The essence of the issue is that freedom of religion is now being defined in a very narrow way, which amounts to freedom of worship.  One is free to worship in any way one chooses, but must obey the law in all other things.  Let’s bracket for the moment the obvious objection that such a narrow definition was never intended by our founding fathers.  More important is that, for us, worship is not something we can separate from our daily living.  When we are sent out to “go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life,” we are just beginning to worship.  What we do in our daily life is our real worship, not just the hour we’re here on Sunday.

So our worship of God may indeed call us to speak against issues of the day, or to take in an adoptive or foster child to share God’s love, or any number of charitable acts, and our Church should have the freedom to pursue those according to our moral teachings.  That’s the essence of religious freedom, and that is what we are seeking to defend.  The prophetic call in all of us absolutely must speak up for what we believe as a Church and preach the Gospel by the way that we live our lives.

We live in a society that is all about protecting and promoting ourselves.  Saint John the Baptist would have us promote Jesus instead.  That’s what he was about.  As it was for him, so it is for us: we must decrease, Jesus must increase.

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