Sunday, November 26, 2017

Unbound and Unbinding

Portal of Judgment, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris

(Solemnity of Christ the King-Year A; This homily was given on November 26, 2017 at St. Paul Church in Cranston, R.I.; See Matthew 25:31-46)

There is a church in the north of Belgium, in the enchanting town of Bruges, named the Basilica of the Holy Blood.  It purports to have a vial of the blood of Jesus Christ, obtained from a cloth used by Joseph of Arimathea when the body of Christ was being prepared for burial.   The citizens of Bruges organize a procession with the Holy Blood every year, and the basilica itself wonderfully celebrates the passion of Jesus Christ.  
In the Lower Basilica, there is a unique statue of Christ in the moments leading up to the crucifixion.  Jesus is seated, with a crown not of gold but of thorns on His head, and His hands are bound with a thick rope.  His face, however, is completely serene and regal. That statue clearly communicates what we believe about the passion.  Christ is not bound out of weakness, but in great strength He willingly surrenders Himself into the hands of men.  His being bound is the act of love that sets us free, His death and resurrection is what gives us forgiveness and eternal life.  Isaiah the Prophet, in his anticipation of Christ as the suffering servant, explains it beautifully:

But he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity.  He bore the punishment that makes us whole, by his wounds we were healed.
—Isaiah 53:5

Because Jesus Christ was bound, we were set free.

In his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (which was given exactly 4 years ago on the Feast of Christ the King), Pope Francis relates how the Holy Spirit is still at work in the lives of all people, helping to unbind them from the complications and complexities of daily life.  He explains how we participate in that work of unbinding those around us through our cooperation with God in evangelization:

“To believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in everyone means realizing that he seeks to penetrate every human situation and all social bonds: ‘The Holy Spirit can be said to possess an infinite creativity, proper to the divine mind, which knows how to loosen the knots of human affairs, even the most complex and inscrutable’.  Evangelization is meant to cooperate with this liberating work of the Spirit.”
—Evangelii Gaudium, # 178

We encounter Christ, who gives us true freedom and new life.  We are then motivated to evangelize, allowing the Holy Spirit to “loosen the knots” of others.  This is the great legacy of the Church, and we will be judged as to how well or how poorly we cooperate in this magnificent work.  The Gospel this weekend, St. Matthew’s description of the Last Judgment, reminds us that the ones who are bound by poverty, thirst, hunger, loneliness, and whatever social bonds that oppress them, are ultimately Christ in a distressing disguise (to use a favorite phrase of St. Mother Theresa of Calcutta).  

The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris has a captivating depiction of this scene from St. Matthew’s Gospel.  The central doorway, containing the “Portal of the Last Judgement,” shows Christ the King, seated on His royal throne.  Below Him is St. Michael the Archangel, weighing the lives of all in the balance.  Those who have responded well to Christ and have been judged worthy of eternal life are on Christ’s right, ready to join the saints and angels forever.  Those found wanting, however, are lined up on His left.  They are being corralled by two demons, one on each end of the file, holding a rope that guides the condemned to their demise.  The rope, however, is not tied to any one of them.  It rests by their side, as if they could simply step over it, or slip under the rope at any minute and return to Jesus Christ.  

The point the sculptor wanted to make is that these souls were perfectly free all throughout their lives to answer the call of God.  They were always free to recognize Him in need, and do something to respond to their neighbor, but they freely chose not to do so.  To be condemned and separated from Christ forever is not a punishment over which we have no control; it is an affirmation of our own freedom, the tragic choice of not recognizing and responding to the offer of life and free gift of Jesus Christ.  

Pope Francis explains Matthew’s Last Judgment, and similar passages, by stating:

“What these passages make clear is the absolute priority of ‘going forth from ourselves towards our brothers and sisters’ as one of the two great commandments which ground every moral norm and as the clearest sign for discerning spiritual growth in response to God’s completely free gift.”
—Evangelii Gaudium, # 179

God freely choses to forgive our sins and welcomes us into friendship with Himself.  He was bound and suffered death that we might be set free and enter eternal life.  But, our Holy Father reminds us, there is an “absolute priority” for us, in having received so great a gift, to reach out to those around us in the name of Jesus Christ.   

From the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has called the Church to recognize and reach out to those “on the peripheries,” those who find themselves on the outside.  As he describes in Evangelii Gaudium, “Our faith in Christ, who became poor, and was always close to the poor and the outcast, is the basis of our concern for the integral development of society’s most neglected members” (Evangelii Gaudium, # 186).   We are called to identify and assist those on the peripheries, and according to our fidelity in this regard, we will be judged.

In conclusion, we can consider not only others on the periphery, but can ask if, perhaps, we ourselves sometimes become separated from Christ and His Church.  Do we ever place ourselves on the periphery by the choices that we make?  It can happen that, through the misuse of our own freedom, we choose to reject the sanctifying grace of God.   Our faith clearly teaches that serious or grave sin, chosen freely and with understanding, could separate us from God and cause us to lose the sanctifying grace that He has given us.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:

If [mortal sin] is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back.
—CCC, # 1861 

Therefore, with one act of faith and an open heart in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, in a moment, we can be completely reconciled to God!  What a remarkable gift, to simply come before God in the sacrament He instituted and confess to the priest, “Bless me, father, for I have sinned, it has been 10 years since my last confession…” or “it has been 2 weeks since my last confession…” or whatever amount of time … “and I am sorry for my sins…”  God grants us forgiveness, sanctifying grace, the restoration of His life within us, and then we are totally free to begin again that great work of unbinding those around us and being effective evangelists for Jesus Christ.

Wherever we find ourselves this weekend, as we near the end of the Liturgical Year and prepare for the coming of Christ into our lives, we ask for the openness to receive, and respond well to, the amazing grace of God.  May we spend our entire lives immersed in that grace, and at the end of this life, may we hear those beautiful words of Christ from our Gospel this morning:

Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
—Matthew 25:34