Homily preached at the Conventual Mass by Fr Gabriel Everitt OSB on Sunday 8th September, the Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time. Fr Gabriel is Headmaster of Ampleforth College.
There is a small phrase in the opening prayer of today’s Mass, which came after we sang the Gloria, which I would not blame you if you had missed among the many words of the prayers and readings, but I would like to remind you of it now. It read: ‘may [we] receive true freedom.’
It strikes me that if there is a ‘true’ freedom there must be a ‘false’ freedom and I wonder what the difference between them is. I imagine that we all tend to think that we would not be free if we were locked up in a prison. This in fact was more or less the state St Paul was in at the beginning of the second reading from his letter to Philemon as he is taken a prisoner to Rome: ‘This is Paul writing, an old man now ... wearing these chains’. But beyond that maybe we think that being free is about being able to do whatever we want without somebody else restraining and stopping us. And this might lead you to wonder if you would be more free if you could make certain people, who may seem to restrain and stop you, simply disappear. Maybe you could start by making your housemaster or housemistress disappear. Do you feel more free now? Maybe matrons and tutors, Headmasters and other sundry finger wagging persons. Is it just getting better and better? More free? Parents gone too. And now you can do what you want. And here’s a tricky question. With all these gone, would you be at Mass now? Maybe you are thinking that most teenagers are somewhere else right now, quarter past 10 on a Sunday morning. Not at Mass.
But true Christian freedom is not actually quite about doing just whatever we might want to do. Because once we have got rid of all external imprisoning forces, we may not be rid of things inside us that can enslave us, the fears, the distorted desires, the anger and the hatred. If we want to know why there is so much war in the world, we only have to look inside our own hearts, so it is often said and I am sure rightly. Our own hearts, left to themselves, will not set us free.
There are three shocking things said that it is hard to accept in today’s gospel – you cannot be my disciple unless you hate your own family; you cannot be my disciple unless you take up your cross and come after me; you cannot be my disciple unless you give up all your possessions. Shocking phrases to wake us up. Both my parents are dead, but I love them still. We had our moments, but does the Good Lord want me to hate them? Shocking phrases to wake us up to the fact that however much we value some of the things, maybe good things, in this life of ours, they cannot last in themselves for ever, the cannot give us true peace, they cannot give us true freedom. Indeed if we exalt them too much and allow them to be the all consuming only thing in our lives, they may end up doing just that – consuming and enslaving us.
In telling you how St Paul began his letter to Philemon I missed out one phrase – Paul was being taken to Rome and he was in chains, but he does not describe himself as being taken by guards, officials, soldiers. He says ‘I am a prisoner of Christ Jesus’. And here’s the strange thing. To be truly free, we have to be taken captive by Christ. I am not trying to produce an argument to convince you of this strange thing – how could I do that within this small space of Mass? – but to tell you that you can experience this and know it is true and be set free. ‘Here I am a prisoner of Christ Jesus’. And that ultimately it is the only thing that will set you free.