O Sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, and gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free. (“O Antiphon” for December 18th)
I must admit: it is hard, in my circumstances, to relate meaningfully to the desire to be set free. I guess I have it pretty good. Freedom is, ostensibly at least, the fundamental principle of modern democracies. We not only don’t lack it, we could hardly get away from it. One could make, I think, a convincing argument that we have so much freedom, it is problematic.
In a certain sense, I know so much freedom that I become complacent, unable to see well enough past the easy life to notice the darkened corners of creation awaiting the visit of God’s mighty hand. In another sense, freedom is so pervasive that it is vulgarized, reduced to the ability to get away with irresponsibility.
As I was reaching the end of my agonizingly long ride home from work tonight, I was listening to a lecturer reflecting on Jean Paul Sartre’s take on freedom and responsibility. I surely can’t agree with Sartre on everything, but I think he was right on target in his understanding that we are always free, in that we always have choices to make as subjects, and that even seemingly overwhelming constraints in our circumstances never force us into specific responses as persons, as beings. The upshot to that is that there is no legitimacy in the constant refrain of excuses people make for their behaviors. We should not confuse expediencies for necessities.
The concluding prayer to today’s offices implores God to set us free from sin, and there can be no argument that I, like you, am by no means free from it. But I think Sartre’s point is well taken, and that even a total enslavement to sin is still a totally free disposition, in that it is freely chosen by the sinner. What we call compulsiveness is not truly compulsion, even when we have debased ourselves through chronic submission to a point of servile reactionaryism and passivity.
There is a sense in which freedom is an eschatological promise, yes, but it is also a fierce responsibility in this time of trial. We are burdened bearers of the awesome dignity of freedom, and we have no excuses. We call for Him to come, but will he find faith on earth? (cf Luke 18:8)