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Freedom, Authenticity, and Joy -- Sermon for Gaudete Sunday, 17 December, 2023




          The Catholic Church teaches surprisingly little about purgatory. Aside from the fact that it exists, there are very few official, definitive teachings about it. Luther, Calvin, and the other “reformers” pushed the Church to make important clarifications to doctrines about the Eucharist, Confession, the Saints, and many other Catholic teachings. But despite all of their objections to Purgatory and the pious practices that surround it, the Council of Trent more or less threw up its hands after years of sessions, and ended up saying hardly anything at all.


          So when people ask, “What is Purgatory like?” it is difficult to give a good answer. I usually say something about how Catholics have depicted Purgatory in many different ways, but the one with the most staying power, and the one that I think best corresponds to the Church’s teachings on the human person, is Dante’s Divine Comedy.


          In this classic work, after being taken by the Roman poet Virgil to see the punishments meted out to sinners in Hell, Dante presents Purgatory as a mountain that he climbs, seeing how God’s grace purifies and restores repentant sinners to prepare them for Heaven. But then Dante becomes not only a witness, but a participant in that purification, and reaching the top of the mountain of Purgatory, Virgil tells him, “your will is free, erect, and whole … I crown and miter you over yourself.”


          Dante achieves true freedom through the taming of his free will, which has become erect – properly directed – and whole. He is “like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem,” as we heard from the prophet Isaiah, crowned as one with perfect control over himself. Now he is ready for the joys of the Earthly Paradise, the last stage before final admission into Heaven.


          Joy is, of course, the Church’s theme today on this Gaudete Sunday. Isaiah presents us this image of the one who preaches a message of joy, who “rejoices heartily in the Lord.” In addition to the crown of a perfectly free will, which no longer desires what is sinful, “he [has been] clothed … with a robe of salvation and wrapped … in a mantle of justice.” Isaiah’s original hearers thought that salvation was freedom from political control and domination by the imperial powers of the ancient near east. The Christian knows that salvation is freedom from sin. After all, we ought to remember that Isaiah’s words today were read by Christ Himself in the synagogue at Nazareth: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”


          What both Dante and Christ enjoy is joy resulting from interior freedom. We think of freedom as exterior – the freedom from constraint, or the freedom to perform this or that action. But interior freedom is even more important – it is the ability to love rightly. Interior freedom begins in honesty, and that is where our friend John the Baptist comes in.


          John the Baptist seems an unlikely image of joy. He is, after all, the one we heard about last Sunday who “was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey.” The honey sounds nice – the locusts, not so much. He has a knack for the incendiary (“You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee from the coming wrath?”) and the controversial (denouncing the adulterous Herod, getting thrown into jail, and then losing his head because of some pretentious girl’s dance). He does not seem, in any of the four Gospels, ever to be presented as joyful.


          But here he is on Gaudete Sunday, because John models honesty, an essential pre-condition for interior freedom, an essential pre-condition for authentic joy. “When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to him to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, ‘I am not the Christ.’” Later, John will insist on the adulterous nature of the King’s attempt at re-marriage – he will not deny it. John’s constant witness to the truth gives him a freedom that leads him to a joy that transcends mere appearances.


          That kind of interior freedom is usually born of honest dialogue with the Lord in prayer. “God, this is me, this is what I am struggling with; this is who I am; this is what I can’t let go of.”


Related to that honest dialogue with the Lord is honest dialogue with others, because the virtues, or stable dispositions, of prayer and relationships with others effect and enrich each other. If you regularly hide things from other people, you’re likely to try to hide them from God too.


One of the greatest desires of modern men and women is authenticity – the desire to be true to one’s self. We tend to think that we can be authentic by constructing our own value systems – speaking my truth. It’s funny, though, that most people who want the freedom to “speak my truth” end up sounding a lot like everyone else. The quest for authenticity so quickly becomes illusory.


The most truly authentic people in human history, the most truly unique, beautifully vibrant humans who have ever lived, are the saints. The prophets we see today, Isaiah and John the Baptist, are great examples. But so are modern saints. What more authentic person has there been in recent memory than St. Theresa of Calcutta? We remember her working tirelessly in the slums of Calcutta for the sick and dying, but that same woman had an incurably feisty streak, condemning abortion before the United Nations and excoriating the vapid soullessness of American materialism. She was at all times perfectly herself, and far more authentic than any YouTuber, influencer, or Instagram star.


The great irony is that the more you self-consciously try to be authentic, the less authentic you are likely to be. The freedom of a will purified of desire for sin is the path to real authenticity. This is why St. Augustine could say something as radical and even scandalous as, “Love God, and do what you will.” “When the love of God is the governing principle of our lives, then all that we think, say, and do will necessarily be yielded to that love.  If our love of God is real and profound, then obedience and faithfulness, right thinking and right actions will flow irresistibly from that love.” That is what leads to authentic joy. (Source: https://www.kingsmeadow.com/wp/love-god-and-do-what-you-will/)


Isaiah’s words that become Christ’s words are also the words of the most completely free and authentic human person ever to have lived. On December 8th, the Church placed those words on the lips of Mary in the entrance antiphon for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Gaudens gaudebo, “I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul; for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, … like a bride bedecked with her jewels.”


Mary’s response to Gabriel, the cause of our Advent joy, is pure freedom and pure authenticity: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” While St. Bernard beautifully describes all the angels in heaven waiting breathlessly for our Lady’s reply to the angel, filled with nervous tension as the fate of the universe hangs in the balance, they were never in doubt. She could not have answered otherwise, not because She lacked freedom, but because She is perfectly free. It is precisely Her lack of modern concern for authenticity, and Her search first and foremost to fulfill the divine will, that She arrives at the perfect freedom that is able to be moved by the great and providential Love in which She finds real authenticity and joy after all.

 

The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson

Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen

III Sunday of Advent – Gaudete – A.D. MMXXIII

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