Fr. Cantalamessa, who for many years was the preacher to the Pope and his household, tells an amusing story from his childhood when after Sunday Mass people from the village would walk home with each other, and on reaching someone’s home it was customary for the person to invite others in to have lunch. But it was a purely formal invitation: you were expected politely to decline and say your wife was expecting you with food on the table. If you had said, “Yes, I’d be delighted,” the person who invited you would be horrified. It’s often like that with the Holy Spirit, explains Fr. Cantalamessa: we invite him to come to us, but we don’t really mean it and would be horrified if he actually did make his presence felt.
Why is this? Surely it is because we have a picture of God that he is somehow going to limit our freedom to do as we please or that he might ask us to do something we don’t really want to do. Our society places such supreme value on personal freedom over any sense of being answerable to someone or something else, that any group that might have a claim on us because we were born into it is viewed with suspicion, and we even feel people should be free to choose their own gender if they wish.
But in fact such an idea of freedom turns out to be a new kind of slavery. People who think they are free because they give vent to their anger or their sexual feelings whenever they want are in fact enslaved by these feelings. Technology which was meant to set us free often has us in its grip, as we feel obliged to answer every email or text immediately , even when we are on holiday. True freedom is in fact very hard to attain, both for individuals and for society. We have a tendency to make things either forbidden or compulsory. When I was a child, the idea that gay people could marry and adopt children would have been written off as ridiculous; nowadays, you risk getting prosecuted if you say they shouldn’t. Where is true freedom in all this?
We begin to get a glimpse of what Christ says to us in our world of today with this saying in the Gospel: Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest. Like the Prodigal Son who thought he was going to find freedom in pursuing his desires, we easily end up in a miserable state, where it might just dawn on us, as it did on him, that serving someone else could actually be true freedom. Taking Christ’s yoke upon us, that is deciding to follow his way rather than pursuing our own path, brings rest to our souls because he is gentle and humble of heart, and knows exactly what our true needs are far better than we do.
And what an extraordinary statement that is: I am gentle and humble of heart. Could any other human being have uttered those words and not invite ridicule, apart from the one man who was indeed a king, but a humble one, victorious but riding on a donkey as the first reading told us? We don’t expect kings to be humble and gentle, especially kings who found new kingdoms. We expect them to be splendid and dominating, subduing their enemies in war, arousing fear in their won subjects and taxing them heavily in order to build magnificent palaces.
Christ is indeed the founder of a new kingdom, the kingdom of God, but he is a king, as that reading tells us, who will banish war rather than wage it, who will bring peace to all nations, not just his own. Most remarkably of all, he does not cling to his kingship, but shares it with all the baptised. And the first place we exercise the kingship he gives us is in our own hearts, by receiving the gift of his Spirit who as St. Paul says, makes it unnecessary for us to follow our unspiritual selves.
Christ came to set us free by his death and resurrection, but as the Cure of Ars said, unless he had sent us his Spirit, his death would have been no use to us. When our youngsters were confirmed recently, Bishop John invited them not just to receive him passively when he said the prayer and anointed them, but actively to call on him in their own hearts: come Holy Spirit, enter my heart, change me into a true disciple of Christ, set me free from all that enslaves me, my addictions, my fears, my compulsions, my psychological conditioning, and make me a servant of Christ whom to serve is perfect freedom.