Rorate Caeli

Sermon for Laetare Sunday: The Law cannot save us

From the Epistle to the Galations: "But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother."

It is rare that all the Propers on a particular Sunday resonate with the same theme.  The Introit sounds the theme for today: " Laetare Jerusalem: rejoice, O Jerusalem; and come together all  you who love her; rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow; that you may exult and rejoice in the breasts of your consolation." The flowers on the altar, the rose vestments, the playing of the merry organ and sweet singing in the choir: all mark this Sunday, Laetare Sunday, that is the mid-point of Lent. This is not just a matter of looking forward to Easter.  The Gospel is the feeding of the five-thousand, that miracle of Jesus that has always been understood as a foreshadowing, a symbol of the Eucharist, that sacramental gift that always is a source of strength and a cause of joy. This cause of joy is with us now; it is the greatest element of the Catholic sacramental life.  O taste and see the real presence of the Lord in our lives, in our bodies, in our souls.

The epistle sounds a different theme, announces another source of joy for the Christian in the midst of Lent and in the midst of this life.  St Paul does a midrash, an explanation in allegorical terms, of the well known story of Abraham’s two wives, Hagar the slave, Sarah the free woman. We are not used to allegorical interpretations of the Bible, for we tend to be literalists.  But the Church fathers, who form such an important part of Tradition, freely used allegorical interpretations of biblical stories, especially OT stories, to explain the Christian faith.  This can bother us in an age whose sense is ruled by data and bytes and  and so-calledfacts.  But Jesus’ parables make extensive use of allegory, and people of his time seemed to have no problem in making the jump between the factual meaning and the spiritual meaning of the story.

The cause of joy in the epistle is freedom:  Therefore, brethren, we are not children of a slave-girl, but of the free woman—in virtue of the freedom wherewith Christ has made us free.  St Paul’s understanding of Christian freedom is not much talked about these days. When Americans talk about freedom they usually mean the freedoms that are guaranteed by the constitution and the bill of rights; freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom to congregate and form voluntary organizations—freedoms that are precious to all of us that should be supported and exercised.  The source of these freedoms and the notion of freedom itself in the American understanding comes from the Enlightenment and from the natural law tradition.   

One of the most famous state mottoes is that of New Hampshire: “Live free or die.”  This speaks to an assertive independence as historically found in American political philosophy. When we studied American history in high school, we encountered many similar sentiments like that of Patrick Henry’s famed and impassioned speech to the Virginia legislature that ends: “But as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”  But this understanding and context of freedom based firmly on the individual is not peculiarly American.  The motto of the French Revolution was, ironic in a sense: “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, ou la mort.” The national motto of Uruguay is “Libertad o Muerte.”  

But what St Paul is talking about in the epistle is something quite different.  It is not that Paul would dismiss the American understanding of freedom with its emphasis on individual rights.  It is that he would insist that the freedom of the Christian supersedes this secular notion of freedom and that Christian freedom has nothing to do with any constitution or government.  Christian freedom is not anything that any government can bestow or take away. The freedom that the Christian has also does not depend on the law, even the Ten Commandments, for the keeping of the Law does not provide freedom but rather a yoke that is a terrible burden that can kill and destroy. For the Law cannot save anyone from eternal death.  The Law, while necessary and useful as a means to learn how to live a good life, and therefore must be obeyed, cannot, however, do what ultimately has to be done: the Law cannot save us.

Perhaps this is why Christian freedom is not much spoken about today, either by the secular world of politics or by Christians themselves.  Christian freedom is very specific:  the Cross of Christ bought our freedom in the ultimate sense, that is the freedom to be freed from the bondage of sin and death, to be children of God in this life and to be with God after death in the bliss of eternal life.  In this way the crucifix that is the mark of a Catholic Church is the symbol of Christian freedom: that this man who is God in the flesh was willing to suffer and die so that men can be truly free. You notice that this freedom, which should be the ultimate source of joy for the Christian, depends on no constitution, no bill of rights, no election, no government grant. It is never something that can be instituted or bought or given by anyone here on earth.  It is, like the Eucharist, a precious and wonderful and awesome gift from the God who is the essence of sacrificial love. Christian freedom is based on the self-sacrifice of the one Lamb of God for the many, pro multis.

The freedom the Christian has as a gift from God has nothing to do with religious freedom, that is, has nothing to do with the freedom to practice one’s religion.  The latter freedom depends on the government and those who are in power. That freedom can be given and can be taken away.  But the freedom of a Christian exists in the deepest sense even, or especially, in the labor camp, or in the Gulag, or in times of violent or subtle persecution.  What has been bought by the blood of the Son of God, what has been given by God to those who believe in his Son, cannot, much to the dismay of those in power, be taken away even by force, for it is the freedom to live even in the midst of death.

The bishops of this country have in the past two decades waged war against what they see as attacks on religious freedom, when the government presumes to force on Catholics, mostly notable in the area of health care, provisions that are contrary to the moral teaching of the Church. In these instances, the bishops have asked the laity to rally around this cause of protecting the moral teaching of the Church. Without downplaying the necessity to counter the amorality and immorality in today’s secular society, I would suggest to the bishops to start doing what they are called to do as bishops of Jesus Christ. And I suggest this knowing the terribly low esteem to which the bishops have sunk in the eyes both of Catholics and also of the secular world, due to the sexual scandals involving priests and the bishops’ refusal to acknowledge the deep corruption in the Church in which corruption they play an important role and which they so dishonestly deny.

 I would suggest that on this Laetare Sunday it may be a good idea for the bishops and priests to organize rallies within their own churches for Catholics to celebrate their Christian freedom with joy.  Just imagine if Catholics were made aware that the freedoms promised by the American Constitution are always provisional and depend on who is in power; but that the freedom they have in the Cross of Jesus Christ depends on no man and can never be taken away from them and is the source of a joy that goes far beyond anything this world can provide. How many Catholics will even hear the introit for today that sings of the joy of that Jerusalem that is not a city made by human hands but rather that place we call heaven whose joys of which we can only get a hint in this life, in those special moments that speak to us of what will finally satisfy that longing we all have, that hole in our heart that aches to be filled?  

There is no doubt that Christians must always fight against the Leviathan of the state when the state acts unjustly. But that fight is not the point. That fight can turn our attention away from bringing back the joy of the Christian faith into a Church that often seems devoid of joy.  Our own people need to know what so many of them do not know: that they are the children of God and the children of the promise, and that that promise comes from God himself, and it is the promise of salvation and eternal life in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, that Jerusalem is their mother who loves them and that love can never be taken away from them.

  Jerusalem, my happy home,

When shall I come to thee?

When shall my labors have an end?
Thy joys when shall I see?

 O Christ, do Thou my soul prepare

For that bright home of love
That I may see Thee and adore
With all Thy saints above.