Saturday, April 15, 2006

true freedom

'You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body' (1 Cor 6:19f.)... Is this not the most welcome news we could ever receive? Is it not a fact that man's true happiness lies in surrendering himself to a cause that is worth his efforts, to a beloved to whom he can give himself as a present? At the highest level, when love has reached its zenith, he gives himself once and for all, for better, for worse, in a lifelong marriage; he can also give himself, maybe, in a friendship that is not tentative but sees itself as definitive and final. Is it not the case that man actually acquires a sense of his life's value when he becomes valuable, not to himself but to something or someone else? And what if this Someone is the eternal God, who is not just anyone but the One whose judgment and evaluation give all things their true significance?

...'You have been bought at a high price'. Christianity, which, alone among all the religions, attributes such dignity to man, can only back up this affirmation by pointing to a further one, that is, what it cost God to make this divine sonship available to man. Indeed, God made men so free that he could not stop them laughing in his face and renouncing all obedience to him. All his attempts to reason with them were to no avail: they killed the messengers he sent to them one after another, as Jesus describes in the Parable of the Vineyard. We can even say that the more God exerted himself to reconcile them, the more stiff-necked they became and the more despicable and hateful his divine love seemed to them, since they had turned away from him. Can God do anything against the finite freedom he himself has created if it stubbornly gives him a 'No'? And the whole mystery of this week lies in the fact that we can say, 'Yes', he can. Christianity stands or falls with this mystery, which we can only profess: we cannot explain it. It is mystery coming from the heart of God, and we cannot explain God. 'God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son', says John, and Paul makes it clearer when he says, 'He made him to be sin', he caused him to bear man's 'No', he caused him to bear the world's alienation from God and abandonment by him. Whether we like it or not, whether we can imagine it or not, that is the fact. Those who champion autonomy are indignant and regard it as theft on God's part, a violation of our freedom. To them it is like anesthetizing a man and cutting some organ from his body without his permission.

But is this comparison valid? Is sin, man's refusal to be reconciled with eternal, absolute Goodness, really an organ essential to life? Is it not much more like a spreading cancer? Can we say that God is robbing man of anything by restoring his health? Furthermore, if a man has become locked in a syndrome of refusal, if he refuses to keep faith with God, can he free himself from his own obstinacy? He may think he can, but in reality he becomes a slave of his 'No' because there is only true freedom when we are in contact with the Good, in the atmosphere of love-that is, of God. This is something that has to be shown, from within, to the person who has turned away. What is taken away from sinful man through the surrender of the Son of God is nothing other than his alienation from the Good; what is given to him is nothing other than inner access to the Good, that is, true freedom. He is liberated both toward himself and toward God.

'Bought at a great price.' The first Christians were well aware of this when they put these two little words, 'pro nobis', at the heart of the Creed. It was 'for us' that the Son came down from heaven, 'for us' that he was crucified, died and was buried. And this means not only 'for our benefit' but also 'in our place', taking over what was our due.

...By sleight of hand the modern world has caused death to vanish from its everyday awareness: let us make sure what we Christians do not, by equal stealth, remove the tremendous drama of the Cross from our Christianity. Or, if we still speak of it in our church services and catechesis, let us beware lest we fail to realize what we are dealing with. Many people think that it is simply up to them to reconcile themselves with God, and that many do not need such reconciliation at all. Meditative techniques are all they need to get in touch with themselves and hence, so they think, with God. They have no conception of the flames necessary to burn up all the refuse that is within man; they have no idea that these flames burn white hot in the Cross of Jesus. There is a cry that penetrates all the cool pharisaism of our alleged religiosity: 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken men?' In the darkest night of the soul, while every fiber of his body is in pain, and he experiences extreme thirst for God, for lost love, he atones for our comfortable indifference.

And what is our part? Are we to be simply observers; are we simply to appropriate what has been done for us without our deserving it? This, again, is not what is expected of Christians. It is true that the essential and decisive thing has been given to us as a gift. But we have to do something with this gift. 'So glorify God in your body,' as the Apostle concludes his exhortation to the community. And this means more than a hasty 'thank you'. God has paid a high price for us, the highest price he could ever pay. Not only has he canceled our huge debt (as the master did for his servant in the parable), for it is not simply a matter of money that we cannot pay: he has borne our guilt or given himself for us as our 'ransom'. For the point is that we cannot free ourselves from our alienation from God. Now that we have received the gift of Christian freedom from him, we express our gratitude by really making it our own, which means putting it into practice, demonstrating its reality. This is freedom to embrace the Good, freedom to dedicate ourselves, freedom no longer to belong to ourselves but to God and our neighbor, to the kingdom of God that is to come to earth from heaven. To glorify God with our whole being means exercising the freedom of the children of God in being concerned for God's purposes in the world. Hans Urs von Balthasar, You Crown The Year With Your Goodness, pgs. 76-80.
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