This week we will celebrate our beloved nation’s birth. One of the absolute bedrock values that our nation is built upon is freedom. It’s part of our American identity. But what do we mean by freedom? We might say that it’s freedom from the rule of a tyrant or dictator or freedom to worship God as we choose. Perhaps it’s freedom that comes from citizens electing their own representatives to create laws and regulations that serve them according to their needs. We cherish this freedom and we would cease to be American without it. In the coming days, many of our nation’s citizens will regale their great love of freedom by consuming copious amounts of adult beverages and over the course of six or seven days, blasting illegal fireworks, one after another…after another…and another, at all hours of the day.
Our Scriptures also speak a lot about freedom, but it’s a different understanding of freedom than we associate with nationalism. Today, we heard St. Paul’s words to the Christians of Galatia, saying, “For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters.”
Paul wrote these words, sometime around the year 50 AD, to a rather new Christian community in a region known as Galatia, in present-day Turkey. These new Christians were mostly of Gentile origin, meaning that they weren’t of Jewish heritage. What happened is that not long after Paul moved on to another community, a group of interlopers, who happened to be Christians of Jewish heritage—Paul calls them Judaizers—came in an began to disrupt the community. They told the Galatian Christians that since Jesus and his original band of followers were Jews, to be true followers, they too would have to follow Jewish Law and all its practices. Paul got wind of it all and wrote this emotionally charged letter, admonishing them for being so easily carried astray, and rallying against the interlopers who had created the disruption by preaching a different Jesus.
He told them that as followers of Jesus, they are free from the yoke of the Law, because salvation came to them through Jesus, rather than the works of the Law. They’d already been given the gift of salvation. Instead, their task was therefore to receive that salvation through their choosing to live like Jesus. And therein lay their true human freedom—to exercise their will in conformity to Jesus’ call or not.
In the context of national freedom, we tend think of being freed from something. But in fact, St. Paul would want us to understand that human freedom means that we are freed for something. Our Catechism says it this way: “Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one's own responsibility. By free will one shapes one's own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude” (CCC, 1731). How different out lives, our families and our world would be if we truly exercised this freedom.
In thinking about this, I imagine the inside of an old dungeon-style prison. And as you look down the main corridor you can see the iron bars of each individual cell—those on the right, those on the left. Within each of those cells, though out of view, are prisoners, sitting within, motionless and silent, having lost hope of being freed.
But at some point, somebody entered the prison and had keys for every cell. He went through the entire prison, motioning the prisoners out, as he unlocked and opened each cell’s door. We would expect the prisoners to run out as fast as they could. But instead, they simply remain within, sitting on the floor, with their backs against the cold cinder-block wall, perhaps believing the task of getting up and leaving to be too much trouble; fearing the unknown of what freedom would bring; and fearing the loss of the familiarity of their cell.
We have been given freedom to live according to something great and beautiful, a higher ideal. And the more we free ourselves of the things that have nothing to do with the One who gave us freedom, the freer we become to ascend toward that higher ideal. Ironically, in our freedom we choose so many things that shackle and limit us—fear and hopelessness keep us in our cells. Jesus wants us to be free, saying, “Follow me”. The more we exercise our will and follow, the freer we become. As we ask God’s blessing on our beloved nation and its people, and celebrate the freedoms we enjoy as Americans, may we ultimately be freed from anything that would yoke us, that we might ultimately be freed for Jesus and the salvation he won for us.