Freedom from God is not Enlightenment
Lent 4-A / 25, 26 March 2017
Today’s Gospel is read at this point in Lent because it was read at this point in Lent 1500 years ago. It was read to prepare catechumens for their baptism at the Vigil of Easter, a great celebration that extended through much of the night and into the morning. The two or two and a half hours that the modern Easter Vigil takes is light by comparison and well worth your time. I hope you will all attend this year, either with our parishes at St. Elizabeth or elsewhere.
The account of the healing of the man born blind was intended to drive home the point that Baptism was enlightenment. And it is critical for us in this era of increasingly aggressive atheism and hostility to religion and religious liberty, to take back the word “enlightenment” from the self-congratulating early modern philosophers who thought that enlightenment meant freedom from the darkness of the religion and monarchies of the Middle Ages. They also invented the term “Middle Ages” as a putdown of the centuries that gave us the great Cathedrals, magnificent art and some of the finest minds that ever put pen to paper. There is a constant romantic fascination with things medieval in popular culture. It is a recognition that the so-called Enlightenment missed something, and our vulgarized modern culture drives home the reality that much has been lost.
Freedom from God is not enlightenment – and anyone who cannot figure that out from the last hundred years since the beginning of World War I is desperately ignorant and astoundingly blind. In recent days there has emerged in the blogosphere an interesting discussion of the loud, divisiveness of our political culture. This has in part to do with the nature of the candidates and campaign in 2016 and the astonishing outcome of the election. But it goes deeper, much deeper. And on both sides of the political debates, people are noticing that a less religious America appears to be a meaner, nastier America. Pope Francis has said, “When the light of faith goes out, all other lights begin to dim.”
No one here is slightly surprised by that. We know that true religion is not a source of bitterness and hatred but of understanding and compassion. We who know that we need forgiveness realize also an obligation to suspend judgment, to listen, and to be patient even with those we regard as utterly in the wrong. Those for whom their only religion is politics and power fall into hatred and bitterness when they lose because when they lose elections and court decisions they lose everything. For us Christians it is different. We know that we will often lose – sometimes we are even killed for the faith – but America in 2017 is not our last, best and only hope. It is Jesus Christ, who heals and feeds his people and leads them to everlasting life.
The world of the early Christians was a dark place in many ways. And those who stepped into the baptismal waters were stepping out of that darkness and into the light of Christ. Jesus says, I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will have the light of life. That’s why the Easter Vigil begins with the blessing and processing of the great Paschal Candle.
And long before the Holy Week liturgies had reached their full ancient development, this hymn which we heard in today’s second reading was sung for those to be baptized:
"Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will give you light."
And what is that light?
It is first of all Christ himself – the Jesus we meet in the Gospels, the Jesus who meets us in the Gospels and in the Sacraments. It is Jesus who was crucified and raised from the dead. It is Jesus who teaches that the poor man is not blind because of his sin or his parents’. It is this same Jesus who for freedom has set us free – free from sin to serve one another and the living God and to walk in the light of mercy, justice, love and creativity. It is this same Jesus who delivers us from the despair and rage that follow if we see no hope beyond this present age. It is this same Jesus who renders societies kinder and gentler to the degree that they believe in him and strive to follow him. To know such things is to live in the light, to live in the truth.
It is, after all, this same Jesus who in chapter 8 of John says that you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.
For us Christians, the Truth is first and foremost a person, Jesus himself.
But to know Jesus as the Truth of God and as the second Person of the Holy Trinity is to be let in on a vast array of truths, of realities, of things good and beautiful. To know Christ is to know a lot of things to which many eyes are closed, to which many hearts are blinded. That’s why the theme of enlightenment is so prominent in early Christian teaching about Baptism.
We who are baptized know that our biggest problem is sin. That’s important and liberating knowledge. Without it, we are apt to imagine that the world’s problem is that everybody else is such a jerk. Baptism is for the remission of sins; as such it requires us to confront the reality of sin. And those who recognize the truth of their own sin know something that makes us gracious and forgiving toward others because God has been gracious and forgiving to us.
The knowledge of the truth about sin also frees us from utopian delusions. When things don’t go our way, we do not despair. We know that things can be better and strive to make them better, but we know that perfection is impossible in a fallen world.
We who have been blessed with the light of faith know that the world has a loving Creator and that it makes sense. The rage and bitterness of our era exist because so many think they have to invent the meaning of life for themselves – and of course they don’t have the capacity to do that and find themselves endlessly frustrated. Even if we did have such a capacity, the burden of it would be intolerable. That’s why so many people who claim to think for themselves all seem to think alike, as is the case with our celebrity culture. The light of faith frees us from such slavery. We know where we came from and where we are going and, although there are many twists and turns and stumbles and sins along the way, we know how we ought to act on our way to the Kingdom.
For such reasons, we know through Baptism and faith that each human being is equally loved by God. Circumstances and gifts are not and never will be equal, but the value of every person is the same.
We know that science does not disprove the existence of God because it cannot. The question is outside its competence. Moreover, we know that science, rightly used, opens our eyes to the wonder and beauty of the world and points to a Creator. We know that reason does not disprove the truth of the Gospel, for reason presses to know what is good and true and infinite and because we also know that reason has been tested and perfected in theology as much as anywhere. And we know that God is quite capable of making himself known.
We know too that our culture tells many lies. We know that the good things of this life may be freely enjoyed but that market pressures and advertising do not hold the key to the good life. We know that sacrifice makes us rich. We know that male and female are part of God’s design and that marriage is a good to which most people are called. We know that children are a blessing and not just an expense or an accessory to the otherwise good life. We know that we are not created just to achieve individual autonomy and fulfillment, and that a life lived with such a goal is a fair imitation of hell.
Such knowledge – and I could go on as could you – sheds light and gives hope. It moves us to maturity as Christians and as human beings. It prepares us for resurrection and eternal life with God.
So do not let those who walk in darkness embarrass or intimidate you about the Faith. Faith in God arises not from backwardness or ignorance or superstition. It arises from an encounter with the truth who is Jesus Christ, in whom God has poured light into the world.