May 1, 2015

Rejoice in the Lord

Christ has set us free, and freedom is our responsibility

Archbishop Joseph W. TobinIn the darkest days of the old Soviet Union, when atheistic communism was especially strong, a Christian man was arrested and sent to a Gulag (concentration camp) because he refused to renounce his faith.

For 25 years, the man labored in prison with no comforts, no companionship and no hope of ever seeing his wife and family again. Then one day, the Soviet Union was no more. Marxism had failed miserably, and the Soviet political and economic system was exposed as corrupt and inhuman. Many prisoners, including the Christian man who had been condemned to the Gulag for his faith, were set free.

After a few years, the former Soviet prisoner emigrated to the West. There he made his living writing about his imprisonment and about his observations of life under a brutal dictatorship. He also wrote about his Christian faith—how it sustained him in the Gulag, and gave him the comfort and hope that were denied him by his oppressors in the old Soviet system.

After several years, this Christian writer made a powerful statement that caused many to question his sanity. He said that it was easier for him to live his Christian faith in the Gulag than in the so-called “free society” of the Western world.

When pressed to explain his statement, the former Soviet prisoner said, “In the Gulag, I had very few distractions or temptations. I was able to pray undisturbed and to direct my full attention to the God who was my only hope. Now, I am bombarded with temptations of every sort, and it’s easy for me to forget that I owe everything—my life, my freedom and my happiness—to the Lord who died and rose to set me free.”

In the Gulag, it was impossible to forget that he was a prisoner who needed to be rescued and set free. In the circumstances most of us live in, it’s tempting to think that we are self-reliant, a free people who have no need of salvation or redemption. Perhaps we have it too good. We are too easily distracted by the comfort and the freedom we take for granted. We forget that we too are prisoners, the slaves of selfishness and sin, who need to be set free.

Pope Benedict XVI once said that “man’s greatest sin is hubris,” which is the arrogance that we are so self-sufficient that we forget or deny that we are dependent on God.

Pope Francis echoes that theme when he admonishes us, “Beware of getting too comfortable!” When we take our life for granted and assume we are entitled to all the gifts God has given us, we neglect our responsibilities as free people, and we are in danger of losing God’s most precious gift, our souls.

Fortunately, the Easter season reminds us that we have been ransomed by the cross of Christ. The unending love of God has shattered the walls of our prisons and shown us the way out. Sin and death have been overcome by the selfless love of Christ. This is why we rejoice in the cross of Christ, why we sing alleluia, and why we give thanks to God for the gift of his saving grace. We have been liberated by the risen Christ. As a result, no one can ever take away our fundamental rights or our dignity as the free daughters and sons of the living God!

As the former Soviet prisoner discovered, freedom is a gift that has to be nurtured and developed. Left untended, freedom too easily becomes confused with license, the notion that we can do whatever we want without suffering any consequences. We mistake freedom for a sense of entitlement that persuades us that we deserve everything that has been given to us—without regard to the sacrifices of others.

But true freedom is the opposite of an irresponsible sense of license or entitlement. True freedom is a gift that we must cherish and take seriously. True freedom, when we recognize it, is a source of joy and gratitude because we know how rare it is and how easy it is to lose this precious gift as a result of our own carelessness.

This Eastertime, let’s thank God for the gift of freedom. Let’s resolve to be good stewards of this precious gift. And let’s combine our experience of Easter joy with a sober recognition that our freedom is something we can easily lose sight of if we begin to take it for granted.

May our risen Lord bless us abundantly during this Easter season. May his words and examples inspire us always! †

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