Bottom line: The early Christians show us the paradox of freedom. As Jesus says, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me...For my yoke is easy and my burden light."
We had an interesting priests' gathering this year. Instead of bringing in an outside speaker, our new archbishop gave the talks. He addressed basic issues: prayer, the Eucharist, pastoral care and our unity as priests. One thing that shined through was Archbishop Sartain's remarkable self-effacement. He even mentioned that since he arrived in the Archdiocese "many people have mistaken me for Fr. Phil Bloom!" He said, for example, that a man at a gas station in Everett asked him, "Aren't you the priest who says Mass at the Monroe Prison?"
I have also been mistaken for him. After an archdiocesan event a lady came up to me and started telling me what a great job I am doing, "Everyone can understand you," she said, "old people, young people, everyone understands you." I was lapping it up but then I realized she wasn't talking about me, but Archbishop Sartain! At the priests gathering, the guys wouldn't let me live it down. They kept greeting me: "Good morning, archbishop. Hello, your excellency." I told them I was glad they were finally showing me a little respect! Anyway, the convocation went well and all the priests seem grateful for the real archbishop...
This weekend we celebrate our country's Independence Day. We have Scripture readings that help us reflect on what it means to be Christians in the United States. As a lead-in to the homily, I would like to note a couple of parallels between our nation and the Roman Empire.
Like the ancient Romans, we Americans are not known as great orators or philosophers. We tend to more practical things like building roads, bridges and water supply systems. And like the Romans we have developed ways of bringing diverse people together in a working unity.
Still, the Roman Empire had a fatal weakness. When the Romans achieved a certain level of comfort and prosperity, they stopped having children. They became more interested in escapist activities. The emperor Augustus tried to counter-act this. He passed a series of laws to encourage the Romans to have more children. The laws had little effect and Rome continued its demographic decline.
Something was happening, however, in another part of the Empire. It would change everything. In a distant corner, a child was born: a non-Roman, himself an only child - although part of a large extended family. When that child grew to a man, he gathered a group of disciples and taught them a new way of life. Ultimately the Romans sentenced him to capital punishment - the cross. I think you know who I mean - the one who says to us today, "Come to me...all who are burdened."
The Romans had become weary, depressed, burdened - not because their lives were harder than other people, but because they had worn themselves out with their distractions. To put it succinctly, they had confused liberty and license. They fell into the worst kind of slavery: a bondage to their own lower instincts - and ultimately they became slaves of the evil spirits.
Jesus came to bring liberation, true freedom. True freedom of course has a price. Jesus did not hide the price: "Take my yoke upon you." When his disciples went to convert the Roman Empire, they stated the cost up front - for a Christian there can be no adultery or fornication, no abortion or infanticide, no contraception or homosexual behavior.
At first, all this seemed like a heavy burden. But the amazing thing is that when people accepted that yoke, they discovered a new power, a freedom they never imagined. "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me...For my yoke is easy and my burden light."
And Christians had children. If a baby was weak, they did not expose him. They cared for every child. The main reason the Christians took over the Empire was that they had children: physical and spiritual children. The formula is simple: have babies and make converts. We did it before, we can do it again! To complain about politicians is futile (even though we all do it). But to love babies and make converts - that will change things.
The early Christians made converts because they invited people to a new freedom - a freedom from all forms of slavery. A movie that brings this home is "Quo Vadis." Maybe you saw it when it first came out or, more recently, on television. I encourage you this summer to get the DVD (your local library undoubtedly has it). We will be showing it here on August 10.
Quo Vadis tells how a small group of Christians went right to the heart of the Empire - to Rome itself. For people who had grown weary, they brought new hope: Not by condemning but by affirming the dignity of each human being. The movie shows them going to their deaths - having hungry animals unleashed on them or being burned alive. Sure they were afraid, but they sang. They had a hope beyond this world.
We have a great country - and we should thank God every day for the blessings of our society. But we can lose it all. We will not last unless we learn the difference between liberty and license. Freedom does mean doing whatever I want, whenever I want. Freedom is self-mastery. Our founding fathers knew self-mastery depends on a Higher Power. In the bulletin I have a little explanation about how our founders wanted to form a "Republic of Virtue" - based on self-mastery, not just having good values, but the disposition to do what is right.
On this Independence Day weekend, we have something to learn from the early Christians. They show us the paradox of freedom. As Jesus says, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me...For my yoke is easy and my burden light."
From Archives (for Fourteenth Ordinary Sunday, Year A):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
my bulletin column
Parish Picture Album
Are these homilies a help to you? Please consider making a donation to St. Mary of the Valley Parish
Lift the City - a Catholic Eucharistic flash mob