As an American, raised in the Land of the Free, I have valued freedom all my life. I have seen flags, state mottos, and even tattoos proclaiming, “Live free or die!” Growing up in a military family, I have personally known many fine men and women who have risked their lives to protect our freedom. Beyond our shores, heroes such as William Wallace (as famously recounted in the movie Braveheart) also gave their lives for the cause of…FREEDOM. On a deep level, we sense that to be free is inseparable from what it means to be human.
Yet while we all want freedom, in our experience we find that not all types of freedom guarantee happiness. What form of freedom can truly bring us the fulfillment that is at the root of this fundamental human desire?
In Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI writes,
As Son, Jesus brings a new freedom: not the freedom of someone with no obligations, but the freedom of someone totally united with the Father’s will, someone who helps mankind attain the freedom of inner oneness with God.
How true this is, and how beautiful and attractive to see this authentic freedom lived out. People were drawn to Jesus’ love, and were amazed at how he spoke with authority; an authority not imposed, but lived and flowing from his freedom as the Son of God.
In a similar way, the world has been drawn to Pope Francis this past year. They sense his love, his care, his kindness, his father’s heart—and all of this seems to flow freely from who he is. His is not the rehearsed gesture of the politician, or some spectacular triumph of the will in pursuing a detached abstraction. We see nothing engineered or artificial in this man, only a natural and authentic love for his fellow children of God.
In his recent apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote,
To believe in and to follow [Christ] is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendor and profound joy.
How can we know this freedom, this joy? How can we distinguish it from the many illusory and counterfeit freedoms that try to entice us but cannot truly fulfill?
Our faith tell us that God created us with a free will with which to know, love, and serve him in this life so that we may enjoy him forever in eternity. Freedom is an absolutely essential part of being human, yet it needs order to be truly free.
As John Paul II reminded young people at the XVI World Youth Day,
Life in its fullness is only lived in self-giving, and that is the fruit of the grace of Christ: an existence that is free and in communion with God and neighbor.
Rather than being an obstacle to freedom, the ordering love of God and neighbor guarantees true freedom.
In contrast, when we try to “free” ourselves from this love for God and others, freedom becomes a cruel master. This idol of counterfeit freedom demands that we tirelessly guard against competing demands from outside ourselves and slavishly worship it alone. Both the libertine, seeking freedom from the demands of love and truth, and the legalist, seeking to preserve his freedom by reducing the demands of love and relation to mere rules, fail to find true freedom in love. Such “freedom” is exhausting, unfulfilling, and eventually implodes, sometimes in the sad cases of self-destruction we see around us and read about in the news.
This is a temptation both ancient and modern. In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve were deceived that God was keeping something from them. They were afraid that obedience to God was holding them back and so desired to be “their own gods,” free from God, deciding for themselves good and evil, and what would make them happy. But pursuing freedom for its own sake did not result in happiness, but in the wounds of sin and death for the whole human family. Freedom divorced from love, from God, is no longer free.
How often do we see this same cycle of deception repeat itself? Have we not all experienced at some point this fear, temptation, and disappointment?
Fortunately for us, God relentlessly pursued mankind to restore our true freedom. God gave mankind a compass toward freedom in the Law delivered through Moses, and faithful men rejoiced in the freedom found in trusting obedience to God. I shall walk in the path of freedom for I seek your precepts (Ps 119).
But this was only a preparation for the freedom that was to come into the world through Jesus Christ, the way, the truth, and the life of man (Jn 14:16). St. Paul is explicit when he tells us, for freedom Christ has set us free (Gal 5:1). This is why we call Jesus our Savior, and his gift salvation. He is the Truth who makes us free (Jn 8:32), manifesting the love of the Father and revealing our true identity, true freedom, and true life.
Jesus Christ taught us not to run from or ignore God, nor to call him “Our Master,” but to relate to him as “Our Father.” As sons in the Son we know the Father’s love, and in living this love we are truly free.
This is freedom! This is the freedom of the Son.
Image: Father and Son on the Beach