6th of the Year, 14 Feb 21
Do you ever end up buying bargains you don’t want? Three somethings you’re never going to use. A meal deal when you really want two of the three things. According to the commercialism of the age you should snap those things up because they’re bargain, because you can, because why on earth wouldn’t you? I think we’re free to live a little differently.
I want to talk about freedom this morning. You are free, my friends, and like so many of the gifts God gives to us it is a gift we fail to thank Him for sufficiently. A plant, if you give it food and water, will grow, it has no choice. It has life and beauty, but not the basic freedoms we enjoy of whether to eat the food in front us or not. This reveals us to be made in the image of God, the crown of creation. God could have just made us mechanical beings like plants or toasters and then we’d do exactly what we’re meant to do.
Apparently there are going to be regulations brought in by the Government so that domestic appliances and such things have to say how long they are expected to last. When we read the book of Genesis, as we’ve been doing at the Weekday Masses over the past few days, we read that God breathes life into humanity but it doesn’t take long before we start hacking away at His image within us. We eat the fruit of the tree we’ve been told not to eat.
If we didn’t love, we couldn’t hurt. If we weren’t free, we couldn’t harm. If we weren’t designed to obey freely, we couldn’t be disobedient. We don’t need to have prisons for washing machines because they either do what they are programmed to do or they break. They can’t stray out of their remit. This is why freedom becomes a political issue. My freedom to say this or do that impinges on someone else’s rights or emotions or freedoms. I’m free to say whatever I like but should I be free to offend that person concerning something they believe deeply? Is the solution to limit the freedom to say whatever you want, or to limit the freedom of someone not to be offended?
Freedom has been propelled to the front of our national debates this past year and it will continue to be an issue: ought someone who has had a vaccine have a greater freedom to go to the cinema or fly to Disneyland Florida than someone who has not? Should someone’s freedom be limited by the Government when someone else’s health is potentially at risk. I’m not going to try to answer these questions now, you may be relieved to hear!
These questions are not modern ones. We are not the first society to struggle with a pandemic and nor will we be the last. We struggle to respond to this because Western society had become supremely arrogant in thinking the progress of humanity would just keep on going on and on and we were past such things as needing to battle infection. In our first reading from Leviticus 13 God’s people were given clear instructions as to what a leper should do while he is separated from the community to protect them from infection. Leprosy continues to be a very serious ailment, visible because of the assaults it makes on the skin. The aim was to end transmission and so open sores were particularly concerning.
We read these passages from Leviticus to provide a context for the Gospels, not because we’re to implement them now. Jesus is confronted by a leper in our Gospel today. It’s significant that he says to Jesus, “If you want to you can cure me.” Jesus is free to cure whomsoever He wants. It’s worth remember the freedom God has. God is not compelled to be love. He is free. We mustn’t deny Him this freedom when we assume He will give us what we want when we pray. We are not His master.
God could cure everyone so why doesn’t He? There are two parts of the answer to this question. First, He has given us autonomy and independence to exercise our freedom. If we have a boss at work who is constantly on our back, watching over our shoulder, telling us not to do things like this or that, we’ll never learn anything for ourselves and we’ll also end up resenting his or her presence. The freedom God gives us, like all His gifts, is not watered down: it’s absolute.
Secondly, suffering seems somehow to be part of life. If the washing machine does break down we might be tempted to hit it, partly out of frustration, partly as sometimes it seems to make it work again. But the washing machine doesn’t have feelings and can’t learn from suffering. Our hitting it is pointless; the suffering fruitless. For us it is not to be so. A child falling over as he or she learns to walk is not prevented from learning because of the fall but helped by it. A friend wants to support another friend by buying them some food and it all goes wrong. They miss the bus, there’s a queue, they haven’t got enough cash, she drops the shopping. All these problems only strengthen the resolve to love and the awareness of the genuineness of the love and will ensure that relationship flourishes.
What does love look like without suffering? I would suggest to you it’s a pale imitation of what we know to be true love. “God is love,” St John writes and, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Sacrifice requires a pouring out of life, a suffering, a diminishing of self. This paradoxically actually releases our self to do the things we truly want to, to experience true freedom. One of the elements of inner reflection that St Ignatius of Loyola commends to us is what is sometimes called the “principle of indifference.”
We are to be passionate people full of conviction and drive for spread of the Gospel and to the honour of God. This commitment however can only flourish if we put to death some of the other things we might end up being concerned about: being liked, being financially well-off, being healthy, being clean, having nice clothes, being in a relationship. The Ignatian principle of indifference reminds us that it will be much harder to make decisions and to be truly free if we have all these vested interests: it will be like trying to keep all the plates spinning. It will mean we’re not free to do anything else.
True freedom also means freedom to fail. I like coming across Saints who if we looked at them from a human perspective were failures. Pope St Pius X is one such example. He was Pope from 1903 to 1914 and it was clear throughout his papacy that war was coming. Treaties were being signed with one country promising to protect another. Countries were rapidly increasing their military capacity. Naturally the Pope was keen for war to be averted but, as you may remember from your history lessons at school, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Frank Ferdinand was assassinated at the end of June 1914. One thing led to another and by August Europe was at war, World War I. Pope Pius X died on 20th August that year. He must felt like a complete failure because war had started.
Think too of the martyrs who were largely executed because they were at odds with the anti-Christian ruling elite of their day. There’d be a temptation to feel the Church had lost with every martyr killed for his or her faith. But it is supremely a triumph of their freedom that they offered their lives to God completely and unselfishly. St Valentine could have obsessed about keeping all the things of life going but he was content to die for Jesus. Our faith then, which we celebrate today, with the aid of the Christingle, is one that sets us free, not so as give us license to do whatever we want, but giving us the grace to realise what our true self longs to do, to live in union with God who sent His Son to redeem the world. Amen.