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Wednesday, Fifth Week of Lent

March 28, 2007

Blessed Wednesday!

Readings:
Daniel 3:14-20, 91-92, 95 (Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace)
Daniel 3:52-56 “Glory and praise forever!”
+ John 8:31-42 (we are slaves of sin, but Jesus has come to set us free)

“If you continue in My Word, you shall be My disciples indeed:
And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free”
(John 8:31-32)

These words of Jesus’ are as misunderstood today as they were the day He
first spoke them.

“We…have never yet been slaves to anyone.
How can you say, ‘You will be free?’
Jesus answered them, “Amen, amen, I say to you,
everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin.” (John 8:33-34)

Then, as now, Jesus’ audience thought that true freedom meant having the
permission and ability to do whatever they desired. They didn’t realize
that their desires themselves could turn into slave-masters. Then, as
now, Jesus corrects this mistake. It is truth that sets us free, truth
that frees us to live within God’s sacred order, in which “everything
works together for good” (Romans 8:28). Anything less than truth is a
lie, and deception prevents “working together” (since there can be no
common standard), never mind “for good”. As our Holy Father told the
youth gathered in St. Louis in 1999, “freedom is not the ability to do
anything we want, whenever we want. Rather, freedom is the ability to
live responsibly the truth of our relationship with God and with one
another.” This is the freedom God built into us when He made us, a
primary distinction that set us apart from the rest of creation. It’s
the foundation of our ability to love (since love is a choice). It’s
the freedom that no one and nothing can take from us.

Our first reading gives us an object lesson in this freedom. Shadrach,
Meshach and Abednego were Jewish exiles in Babylon, friends of Daniel
and righteous in their own right. Their observance of God’s Law had
made them (along with Daniel) the most wise and prudent men in the
nation, a fact which did not escape the king’s notice. First he took
them into his service (Daniel 1:19). Then, after Daniel had
demonstrated his superiority over the king’s magicians by interpreting a
dream the king had forgotten, Daniel’s friends were appointed
administrators over the province of Babylon (Daniel 2).

Having a position of authority in a kingdom ruled by pagans is not
without its hazards. When the king decided to set up a new idol, he
expected the leaders of the people to be the first to join him in
worship. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused. The king had
overstepped the limits of his rightful authority. They were not about
trade their freedom to worship God for the slavery of idolatry, of sin.
Had they done so, they would have forfeited their very identities, not
to mention the very wisdom and prudence that made them fit to govern in
the first place! Faced with the choice between physical death (which
can lead to eternal life) and spiritual death (which leads to the
eternal fires of hell), they chose the furnace.

Infuriated by his lack of control over them, the king ordered the
furnace to be heated seven times hotter than usual, then had them bound
& cast in without bothering with the usual preliminaries (like removing
their shoes, hats & outer garments). Much to his surprise, the young
men were visibly as free inside the furnace as they had been outside of
it. The fire only loosed their bonds and their tongues as they first
confessed the sins of their nation, then broke out in praise of God,
calling all creation (in detail) to “praise and exalt Him above all
forever” (Daniel 3:57, etc.) as they walked about in the fire (we share
in part of their song of praise in today’s responsorial “psalm”). They
even called on fire itself to join in their praise (Daniel 3:66)! One
“like a son of God”, to use the king’s words, walked in the fire with
them. This fourth inhabitant of the furnace is thought to have been
Jesus Himself, since He is the Son of God. Because they walked in His
ways, in His Truth, they were utterly and completely free.

The freedom of the three young men in the fiery furnace was demonstrated
by, but by no means limited to, God’s physical deliverance.
St. Polycarp comes immediately to mind as a free man whose freedom
was not limited to surviving an executioner’s attempts on his life.
Thousands of martyrs have followed his example, buying their
freedom with their lives. In addition, thousands of penitents have
found freedom in casting off the chains of their own desires.
St. Francis of Assisi was just one example. As a young man,
he was the leader of his peers, decked out in the latest fashions,
presiding over the merriest festivities. But as he began to mature,
as God began to tug at his heart, he realized that he was limited
by his riches and by his loathing of the lepers who begged alms
by the side of the road. It was only when he overcame those passions,
when he embraced and kissed the leper, when he cut himself off
from any claim to his father’s wealth (going so far as to return
all his fancy clothes), that he found himself as free as a bird.
“If you took away his food, he fasted. If you took away his lodging,
he found perfect joy in the cold and snow. If you abused him
and told him he was no good, he agreed with you. If you took away
his life, he became a martyr. The world could not force him to
compromise.” -Fr. Michael Scanlan, TOR, Let the Fire Fall.

This is true freedom. This is what it means to be a child of Abraham, a
child of God. This is what it means to follow Jesus. This freedom
makes it possible for us to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians
4:4) in the knowledge that everything is for our benefit. After all,
“if God is for us, who can be against us?…Who then shall separate us
from the love of Christ? shall tribulation? or distress? or famine? or
nakedness or danger? or persecution? or the sword? But in all these
things we overcome, because of Him that hath loved us. For I am sure
that neither death, nor life, nor Angels, nor principalities, nor
powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might, nor height,
nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the
love of God, which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord” (Romans 8:31, 35-39).

The only thing that can separate us from Christ, that can destroy our
freedom, is sin, and that’s within our power to choose. It’s only when
we turn against ourselves by choosing sin that anything else has power
over us.

“For freedom, Christ has set us free; stand fast, therefore,
and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

May we joyfully live the freedom Christ won for us.

May God bless your Lenten freedom.

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