The Fifth Sunday of Lent [A]
Ez 37:12-14 + Rom 8:8-11 + Jn 11:1-45
April 2, 2017
“So Jesus said to them, ‘Untie him and let him go.’”
The calendar says that Spring started back on March 20. But to me, Spring arrived with the rains that fell this past week. A good rain has a way of engaging our senses: sight, sound, smell, and even touch if we’re outside in the rain. Even once the rain has passed, its effects are tangible. The landscape and the air are different, most noticeably in how quickly brown and yellow turn to green.
Spring is when nature springs to life. Our liturgical seasons show how the world of nature is actually a reflection of the world of the supernatural, which is to say, the spiritual life. Nature and the supernatural—the flesh and the spirit—are not meant to be at odds with each other. We do find them at odds sometimes, as St. Paul talks about in the Second Reading, but that’s because of the Fall of Man. “In the beginning,” according to the human nature that God originally gave to Adam and Eve, God did not intend for the mortal body and the spiritual soul to war against each other. But that’s how we find things today, because of the Original Sin that each of us inherited from Adam and Eve, and because of our own actual sins.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if new life came about as readily in the spiritual life as it does each Spring in the world of nature? That would be wonderful. But that’s not how the spiritual life works, unfortunately. The chief reason that the spiritual life is so difficult is because you and I don’t understand, don’t appreciate, and don’t authentically use our human free will. Freedom. Freedom sounds like a simple thing. But freedom is very easily misunderstood and abused.
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Consider an example of conflict—or at least, perceived conflict—between one’s freedom and God.
Have you ever heard someone say, “I don’t go to Mass because my parents forced me to go when I was young”? If someone were to say that to you, your response might go something like this: “What else did your parents force you to do?”
“I bet your parents forced you to wash before you went out in the morning. Those cruel tyrants called ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ made sure that you brushed your teeth every single day: even Tuesdays and Thursdays! Your parents dragged you kicking and screaming to school so that you could learn to read—and the teachers collaborated in this cruelty, by forcing you to learn the alphabet and put words together.”
“To top it all off, after looking after your physical needs, your parents had the nerve to exercise their authority by looking after your spiritual needs: taking you to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation.
“Now, if they had neglected to see that you were clean, had suitable clothes, ate nourishing food, got some education, then they would have been visited by Social Services. Are you complaining…” you would finish saying to this person, “Are you complaining because your parents took responsibility for your eternal life?”
Along the lines of that imaginary conversation, it’s good for us to hear again the following Top Ten list. I’m sure you’ve heard it before. You might consider it a reflection on the reasons that some people give for not going to Mass, or even for not going to Confession. It works either way. The list is called “The ten reasons why I never wash.” “I never take a bath, and I never take a shower, and these are the top ten reasons why:
- I was forced to wash as a child.
- People who wash are hypocrites—they think they’re cleaner than everyone else.
- There are so many different kinds of soap, I can’t decide which one is best.
- I used to wash, but I got bored and stopped.
- I wash only on special occasions, like Christmas and Easter.
- None of my friends wash.
- I’ll start washing when I get older and dirtier.
- I can’t spare the time to wash.
- The bathroom is never warm enough in winter or cool enough in summer.
- People who make soap are only after your money.”
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Freedom. Freedom is something that is part of our human make-up. Without freedom, we are less than human. Without freedom, we cannot faithfully live the Catholic moral life.
To help us reflect about how Catholic morality works, consider the image of a ship sailing out to sea. Picture this: in your moral life as a Catholic, you are the first mate on this ship. The image of this ship reflects three different dimensions of Catholic morality.
The first dimension is carried out by keeping your ship in shape: making sure it’s in working order: this is personal morality, and is based on the virtues such as courage and prudence, temperance and justice. If your ship’s not in shape, it’s going to sink down into the water, good for nothing.
But then, the second dimension is when you keep your ship from running into other ships that are out there at sea: this is social morality, or social ethics, which means not only getting along with others, but also working with others. Because you’re not out to sea alone. You’re part of a fleet, or a battalion.
The third dimension comes from knowing that you are out at sea on a mission. You’ve been sent out to go somewhere and accomplish something. You’re not just a yacht floating around on the waters while you drink margaritas. This is our final morality: the morality that reminds us that our everyday choices are connected to where we will spend eternity.
But none of these three dimensions of morality—personal, social, or final—makes any sense until we recognize what our human freedom really is, and what it is not.
The Church teaches us that the “dignity of the human person is rooted in his or her creation in the image and likeness of God.” This simply echoes what we hear “in the beginning”, in the first chapters of the Book of Genesis: that God created man—male and female He created them—in the Image and Likeness of God.
Only if you believe that you—as an individual—are created in the Image and Likeness of God, will you be able to live out that inner, personal morality that is based on the virtues. And only if you believe that each and every person you meet—whether you particularly care for that person or not—is created in the Image and Likeness of God, will you be able to faithfully live out the demands of social morality. And only if you grow in your love of God, will you step closer each day towards that final goal of eternal happiness, where God’s holy ones see Him face-to-face.
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Here, though, we need to consider an important distinction. After all, we can reflect on freedom as being two very different things. On the one hand, we can talk about “freedom from” something, or we can talk¾on the other hand¾about “freedom for” something. To give an example: when we celebrate Independence Day, we are celebrating the day on which the United States declared their “freedom from” England. Our Founding Fathers declared that the people of our land were free from the repressive government of King George III. This type of freedom—“freedom from”—always demands a separation from an “other”. This is the freedom that we call “independence”.
But our Founding Fathers knew that independence— separation, “freedom from” another—is neither the be all and end all of life, nor the be all and end all of freedom. The Founding Fathers also declared that the people of our land were free for exercising the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In a similar way, as a child grows older, and gets closer to the day when he leaves home, he looks forward to having his freedom (meaning, in his mind, not being tied to his parents anymore: having independence). This is a natural stage of development. It usually takes some time in life to recognize that freedom doesn’t only mean being separated from others. Independence is just the means to a greater end. Independence makes it possible to enjoy the freedom—the capacity—to serve others.
It’s in this second sense of freedom that we see that freedom is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian, and to make moral choices as a Christian.
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God’s love for us is absolute. God respects our freedom absolutely. He does so in a way which can be hard for us to understand. Normally, for us, drawing closer to someone else means coming under the other person’s control, something from which part of us flinches. We usually believe that you can’t draw closer to another, without your freedom being taken away in some measure.
In fact, a Catholic striving for holiness spends his or her days on earth realizing that the greater type of freedom comes about by following the moral teachings of the Church. The Church, in her moral teachings, is best able to show us how to grow in that deeper type of freedom. This is the freedom for others, through which we draw closer to others, forming a communion of love which has Christ as its heart.
 The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church 358.
 cf. 2 Peter 1:4, in CCCC 362.