Dare to be Free
Second Sunday of Lent. Fr Timothy Radcliffe reflects on our resistance to the good news.
Whenever I began to preach at one of the Masses at Blackfriars, a middle-aged man used invariably to yawn and reach for something to read. This filled me with profound irritation which was only partially soothed when I discovered that all of the brethren experienced the same rebuff. Now I realise that I am that person myself. Every day at Mass I hear the Word of the Lord addressed to me, and reply ‘Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ’, but how often do I really attend to it? This may be partially distractedness but surely there is also an element of resistance. If I were to listen, my life would be turned upside down.
The disciples accompanying Jesus on the way to Jerusalem also do not want to hear his words. He has told them that he is on his way to suffer, die and rise again, but they simply don’t want to know. So the Lord dramatically challenges them to open their ears. He is transfigured in their sight and a voice from heaven cries out, ‘Listen to him.’
God promises to us more than we could ever imagine, an infinity of joy and utter freedom. Abraham in the first reading is promised descendants as many as the stars of heaven. But God’s promises leave no one unchanged. Abraham is enveloped in darkness and his life is bound by covenant to God, the Creator of those very stars, and he loses tight control of his life.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to make his ‘exodus’ into a freedom which infinitely transcends that given to Israel when she left the bondage of Egypt. He invites the disciples to accompany him freely on this journey out of the bondage of sin and death. But, like the rest of us, they are afraid. For I may long for that infinity of love which is God’s own life, but also fear its fire; I thirst for God’s unbounded freedom but freedom is frightening. Fyodor Dostoevsky tells the story of the Grand Inquisitor, who asserts that ‘nothing has ever been more insufferable for humanity and society than freedom. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us; “Better that you enslave us, but feed us.”’ Like St Augustine we may say, ‘Make me chaste…..but not yet.’
Annie Dillard claimed that listening to the gospel is the most risky thing one can do: ‘The Churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church (not that I see many of those these days); we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares.’ So this Lent may we open our ears to the Word of God. Hearing its promise, may we have the courage to embrace the transformation that it brings.
The final words of this gospel are almost chilling: ‘When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.’ Jesus, who had been seen conversing with Moses and Elijah and whose Father cried out from heaven, is again found alone. We listen to the words as a community, in shared attention (or distraction). But we also hear them alone, as words addressed to each of us alone, invited on a journey into personal freedom that no one else can take for us. Listening to the Word, each of us is ‘alone with the alone.’ Like the disciples, we need silence to digest their import.
Yet they do not travel to Jerusalem alone. They walk with the Lord and each other. Our journey is also towards the shared freedom and joy of the Kingdom, for which we struggle now. Embracing freedom is costly, as the people of Ukraine are showing us, refusing to submit to tyranny. Their freedom is ultimately inseparable from our own. If we support the cause of freedom, even though it is but a tiny foretaste of what is promised, it will be costly for us too. Let us weigh the cost and set out.
Readings: Genesis 15:5-12,17-18 | Philippians 3:17-4:1 | Luke 9:28-36
Image: detail from the painted ceiling in the Dominican church of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Portland, Oregon, photographed by Lawrence Lew OP.
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Thank you,Fr. Timothy.Another beneficial homily much of which I shall transfer into a journal kept for such jotting.s
Thank you also the entire Oxford community……you have been a blessing across these last two years.
Blessings to each one.