The Cross of Christ Unites. . . In Liberty
For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me a captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! ROMANS 7:22–25
The Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. MATTHEW 20:28
When you read the gospels, you sometimes sense that the disciples of Jesus were not listening to him.
He announced his Passion as they made their way to Jerusalem, and they began to squabble over who would get to sit at his right and his left in the kingdom. Whenever Jesus preached the way of the cross, they sought the opposite path. Even when he asked the disciples if they could drink out of the chalice from which he was to drink, they seemed not to catch the full import of what he was saying.
Yet who are we to critique the apostles’ inability to comprehend the Lord’s message? When we hear of the way of the cross, we filter out the harsh reality of the message. As slaves to pleasure, we flee when faced with the cross or offered the drink from his chalice. Yet God’s grace is great; even when we run, we end up right where God wants us.
Order of Redeemers
A young man named Peter fled his native land because a heresy had infected a wide part of the Christian Church there. Another man, Dominic, remained where he was and fought the heresy by founding a religious community, the Dominicans. Thinking it the best way to preserve his faith, Peter headed south. There he encountered an even greater threat: the Muslim occupation of Spain. Yet this is where God wanted St. Peter Nolasco.
When he encountered Christians enslaved by their Moorish captors, Peter knew what the gospel demanded of him. Just as Jesus had come to ransom the many, so St. Peter ransomed those poor souls who had been enslaved because of their faith. Spending all that he had, he ransomed all that he could. In his lifetime he would personally be responsible for the release of more than four hundred captives.
In 1218 A.D., prompted by a heavenly vision, St. Peter Nolasco founded an order of redeemers. In addition to the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, these men took a fourth vow: Should it be necessary, they would offer themselves as a substitute for a captive if it meant that the enslaved might go free. The Mercedarians begged for alms that were used to pay ransom for the enslaved. Sometimes they could not raise enough money and one of the Mercedarians would remain with the captors as a pledge until another could return with the full payment. Many of these brothers were martyred; their lives profoundly touched both the ransomed Christians and the Muslim captors.
Slavery has existed throughout the course of human history; only relatively recently has it been recognized as an affront to human dignity. Even today, there are those who enslave other human beings through political and economic means. Modern followers of Christ still have plenty of opportunities to ransom captive souls.
Freedom from Slavery
In the Scriptures, a person is considered enslaved to the extent that he or she is attached to anything that is not God. “No servant can serve two masters,” Jesus says in Luke 16:13. “Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” When God is not master of a person’s life, other forces are free to enslave him. A Christian must be especially careful not to become encumbered by lesser “gods,” knowing the price Jesus paid to set us free from the bondage of sin.
In the passage quoted above from the book of Romans, St. Paul speaks of the horrible effects of this enslavement. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Inevitably, the way of bondage is the way of death. However, even at the moment of death, the liberation of the cross is possible. Two men were crucified with Christ, one on each side of him (the seats that James and John requested). Both prisoners were guilty of the crimes for which they were being executed. However, one admitted his guilt; from his cross, Jesus assured that thief that they would soon be in paradise. Especially in the United States, freedom is considered a basic human right. And yet, the kind of freedom many people are looking for is just another form of bondage, serving a false god. Some want freedom from a spouse to serve the false god of lust, or freedom from parental authority to serve the false god of selfishness, or freedom from pain to serve the false god of pleasure. None of these things constitute true freedom, which comes when we are not enslaved by any of these false gods; instead, we are free to live our lives as God intended. Sadly, this takes a long time for most people to figure out.
The realization that they have simply traded one master for another hits some only when they are nailed to a cross of their own making. I once knew a man who was rather bigoted, a womanizer, and an avowed agnostic. Then he was diagnosed with end-stage bone cancer, with less than a year to live. One day when his life on this earth was nearly over, I sat on the edge of this man’s bed. It was like being at the foot of the cross. In those months he had renounced all of his macho ways. He became gentle toward his wife and children, and asked to be baptized into the Catholic faith. I have no qualms with saying that he died a saintly man; he also died a free man! Most of his life he was a slave to what he thought other men wanted to hear, wanted to see—he wasn’t himself, he was what he thought he had to be in order to please others. Yet nailed to that harsh cross like the good thief, he was able to steal heaven.
The Power of the Cross is a book well-suited to daily reading during Lent. The book is available here in pdf version. Daily excerpts will be reprinted in this space during Lent.