(All nine readings should be proclaimed tonight. But because of space limitations, I can only comment on four.)
Bob McClory begins his latest book As It Was in the Beginning, by quoting from the Grand Inquisitor chapter of Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov. The Spanish church's 16th century judge of orthodoxy and heresy arrests Jesus who has returned, healing and comforting his people.
"The old inquisitor's complaint is basically this: that Jesus refused to use his power to relieve mankind of the burden of freedom.’Freedom of faith was dearer to Thee than anything in those days fifteen hundred years ago,' he says.’Didn't Thou not often say, "'I will set you free!'" But now Thou hast seen these "free men" . . . . Yes, we've paid dearly for it . . . but at least we have completed that work in Thy name. For fifteen centuries we have been wrestling with Thy freedom. But now it is over and ended for good."
Tonight's biblical message revolves around life. In the period before our lectors start to proclaim our readings, we've experienced the contrast between dark and light, night and day, death and life. Above everything, we're commemorating the life Jesus so generously shares with his followers.
But what kind of life is this which the risen Jesus offers? Our sacred authors were convinced it's more than just the ability to get into heaven one day. The early Christians celebrated this most important event against the background of Yahweh rescuing a band of Hebrew slaves from Egyptian captivity. On one side of the sea was slavery, on the other, freedom. The life Yahweh offers is rooted in ordinary earthly freedom, not heavenly bliss. (The concept of an afterlife as we know it wouldn't enter Jewish theology until 1,100 years after the Exodus!) The Chosen People's choices were simple: life/death, slavery/freedom.
But as Deutero-Isaiah pointed out during his people's Babylonian captivity, there's a price to pay for being free. We must personally choose to sidestep the serenity and security which slavery offers and accept the pain and uncertainty which freedom demands, the very thing from which the Grand Inquisitor saves us. Once one freely gives oneself to God, one begins a unique existence. Though God is always near, the prophet also reminds us of the other side of the coin. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways," says Yahweh. "As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts." Determining what are God's ways is a life-long process. Slaves never have the opportunity - or burden - to make such decisions.
Our Romans passage on the life Jesus offers is simply an introduction to Paul's thesis on Christian freedom. Following tonight's moving words, the Apostle reminds his readers, "Thanks be to God that, although you were once slaves of sin, you have become obedient from the heart to the pattern of teaching to which you were entrusted. Freed from sin, you have become slaves of righteousness." Paul then demonstrates how Jesus' death and resurrection has freed his followers from the slavery of the 613 laws of Moses. Paul can't conceive of Christians living their faith without freedom.
Such a concept is just as disturbing to some of us today as was the angel's Easter message to the frightened women. They didn't find what they thought they'd find. It would take them a long time to understand the implications of Jesus alive among them.
The early church eagerly accepted pain and hardship as an essential part of the freeing life of Jesus, the very pain and hardship which the Grand Inquisitor had successfully eradicated by eradicating freedom.
By the way, the sub-title of McClory's book is The Coming Democratization of the Catholic Church. If we think we're having problems now . . . .