2nd Sunday of Advent

For freedom Christ set us free. (Gal 5:1) That means that before Christ came into the world and before he came into our life, we were not free.

In today’s 1st reading God commands the prophet saying, Comfort, comfort my people. The message is intended for a people in exile, in captivity; it is a message that proclaims that her service, her slavery, that was a punishment for her sins, is at an end. The message is a proclamation of freedom, freedom that comes through repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

In today’s Gospel St. John the Baptist proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and he announces the mighty One who comes after him, the Messiah, will baptize with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit brings the gift of true freedom. So it is that St. Paul writes, Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Cor 3:17) So once again, true freedom comes through repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

So it will be good for us to consider the true nature of Christian freedom and how repentance, which opens us to receive the forgiveness of our sins, prepares us also to receive the gift of true freedom.

Let us consider some of the Gospel passages we have listened to recently.

Last month we heard the parable of the talents (cf. Mt 25:14-30): the master trusts his servants large sums of money to work with in his absence; he does not give them specific instructions, rather they are to use their own ingenuity so as to bring back a profit for their master; two of the servants freely applied themselves to the task and brought back the profit desired by the master; the third, a slave of fear, did nothing and failed the trust that was given to him.

Last Sunday, Jesus called us to be watchful and alert as the servants of a household while the master is abroad on a journey. (cf. Mk 13:33-37) Each servant is entrusted with his task and must apply himself to the fulfillment of the task in the master’s absence. If we understand the message rightly, watchfulness consists precisely in freely fulfilling the assigned task.

This is made clear in a similar passage in which Jesus speaks of the faithful and prudent steward whom the master sets in charge of his household to distribute the food at the proper time and adds Blessed is that servant whom his master on his arrival finds doing so. (Mt 24:45, 46)

The faithful and prudent steward is set in contrast with the wicked servant who deciding that the master is long delayed gets drunk and begins to mistreat his fellow servants. (cf. Mt 24:48-51)

There is a paradox involved here. On the one hand, Jesus tells us that even the hairs of our head are numbered (Mt 10:30); this gives a picture of God as something like the most extreme ‘micromanager’, whose providence reaches down to the finest details of human life. On the other hand, Jesus’ parables reveal that God calls his faithful to collaborate freely with his providence to such as extent that we are given a trust analogous to that received by a servant whose master is away on a journey. It is almost as though God, who knows all things, isn’t even looking, such is the trust that he gives us.

Our Lord’s teaching in these various passages reveals us the nature and the right use of human freedom. Human freedom is not absolute but is set in a context of subordination to God, Our Creator and Lord, and the task he has assigned us; that assigned task is not the task of isolated individuals but of servants who make up an ordered household.

The right use of human freedom is determined by our relationship to God and by the good order of his household. In this light, in order to make good use of his freedom, the good and faithful servant needs to recognize the task assigned and freely apply his native intelligence and other skills to the fulfillment of the task. Further, since the task does not exist in isolation, the servant needs to know not only his own limited task, but should have some view of the ‘big picture’.

The wrong use of freedom by the wicked servant involves the rejection of the task and the pursuit of hisown will, which inevitably will end up harming the other members of God’s ‘household’ and ultimately himself.

We can also see now how the servant who has all manner of thoughts and desires that distract him from the task is less free to apply himself fully to the assigned task. Even if he does not abandon the task, even if he wants to accomplish the task, he must continually devote a certain amount of energy to overcoming the resistance and distraction that he finds within himself.

The virtues are the character traits that make the fulfillment of our task easy and enjoyable. The virtues truly set us free to fulfill the task assigned to us by God. The law of God guides us in the acquisition and practice of virtue and thus marks the path to true freedom.

The wicked servant, even if he freely chooses to abandon the task, ends by getting ‘drunk’, that is he forgets his true identity as a member of God’s household and enslaves himself to his fancies and desires. At that point he would hardly be capable of performing the assigned task, even if he chose to do so, precisely because he is lacking in virtue; even if he were driven to his work by a whip, he would do a poor job.

On Friday we celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. Her freedom from sin and from every sinful and disordered desire meant that she was most truly and perfectly free. She was free to recognize and follow even the most delicate movements of the breath of God, the Holy Spirit. She was free to apply herself and perfectly fulfill the most elevated task that God assigned her, to be Mother of his Son. The perfection of Christian freedom is revealed in the humble handmaid of the Lord. She also teaches us what she heard from the angel: Nothing will be impossible for God. (Lk 1:37)

Now that we have considered the true nature of Christian freedom we need examine the repentance in the light of this knowledge.

Repentance, in the fullest sense, requires more than recognizing that I have broken God’s commandments in particular ways; it requires recognizing that, by violating God’s commands, I have rejected the task he has assigned me; it means recognizing the ways in which I have refused to fulfill my part as a member of the household of God; it means recognizing the ways I have abused my freedom and so made myself a slave of my own desires and passions.

Repentance, however, is not just a matter of recognizing the wrong I have done, but of turning my life around. If I recognize that I have abused my freedom, then now I must beg the Lord to free from my chains so that I might begin to use my freedom rightly; if I recognize that I have refused to do my part as a member of God’s household, then now I must take up and embrace the task that has been entrusted to me.

Turning my life around through repentance also requires that I seek forgiveness for my sins; I must seek forgiveness not only for having offending God, but also for having introduced disorder into his household. That is one of the reasons why God requires confession of sins to a priest, who stands as both the representative of God and of the Church.

Not only must I seek forgiveness of sins, I must be willing to receive that forgiveness, which involves opening myself to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, who purifies my heart and frees me from the desires that enslave and gives me the power to take my place as a free servant in the Lord’s household.

Comfort, comfort my people – comfort is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who leads us to repentance and the forgiveness of sins and bestows upon us the freedom of the children of God. That is when we shall truly see the salvation of God in our own life.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.