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To be a Christian is not a burden; it is a gift

Homily by Archbishop Thomas Wenski for Men's Conference

Homily by Archbishop Thomas Wenski during the 4th Annual Men's Conference. St. Mark Catholic Church. Saturday, March 5, 2014.

Jesus came into the world to do his Father's will - which was to save us.  But doing the Father's will in a fallen world is not easy.  Now our world has been fallen since that first sin of Adam and Eve - when they said "No" to God and instead of living for God they chose to live for themselves, and in doing so they lived against God.

Well, Jesus comes into this fallen world - and he comes to do the Father's will.  His life is a "Yes" to God.  Now, if you're living for God in a world that is against God, you got to expect some resistance and some opposition.  And, boy, did Jesus get opposition.

After hearing the gospel reading, really the only question we should be asking ourselves is, whose side are we on?  Are we living for God or against him?  Is our life a "Yes' to the will of the Father; or is it a "no"?  

The popular culture which we live in today is certainly individualistic – and perhaps narcissistically self-absorbed (it’s all about me, isn’t it?).  And so popular culture holds that any “yes” is necessarily a limitation on my freedom. And so commitment is discouraged - look how the number of marriages have declined.  For the first time in our history in our country, there are more adults who are “never married" or "no longer married" than there are adults who are married.  

Freedom comes to mean “doing as I please,” that “I can decide for myself what is good and evil;” that “I am my own arbiter of truth;” that “if I am to be truly free, I must defy God, I must refuse to submit to his rules.”  

But Jesus’ life is a "yes" to God - a "yes" lived in total freedom.  His enemies do not take his life; he lays it down of his own free will.  Now, Jesus promises us the "freedom of the children of God" - it is the freedom not to do as we please but to do as we ought, to be the persons that God created us to be. It is the ability to say "yes" to God and his plan for us - and not only to say "yes" but to live the "yes".

Will “saying yes to God” make us less free?  Will "saying yes to God" take the fun out of life?   Well, hopefully today in this conference you will hear testimony about how saying "yes" to God makes a person truly free – and life truly joyful..  

Recently I came across this definition of freedom – by a student of St. Thomas Aquinas – it reads: “freedom is a desire so ordered and so disciplined as to make the achievement of the good first possible and then effortless.” Here, there is no contradiction between freedom and following the rules. Here, commitment doesn’t limit one’s freedom; it is how one expresses one’s freedom. And isn’t character “disciplined freedom in pursuit of the good”? And aren’t virtues learned habits that make doing the good appear “effortless”?

Allow me to borrow an example from the sports world. LeBron James might become perhaps one of the greatest basketball players ever to play the game. On the court he is free to do pretty much anything with the basketball. I’m sure that LeBron started off with a love of the game but that did not mean he did not have to practice, practice, practice; nor were the rules of the game a matter of indifference to him. He has become a great basketball player not by flaunting the rules – or picking and choosing which ones matter; no, the rules become second nature to him. He is, you could say, a virtuous player – because he excels in all aspects of the game.

To be a Christian - like being a good basketball player - means learning the rules and making them second nature to you; it means discipline - you got to practice religiously - to keep at it and take the advice of your coaches.  

But today we think that religion is a burden.  How many times have you heard (or perhaps thought) "the Catholic Church has too many rules and regulations!"  We don't want to get too close to this religious stuff.  We're afraid it might be too restricting, too limiting.  Have you notice how people these days like to say they're spiritual - but not religious.  (Being spiritual, I guess, means thinking nice thoughts, but being religious binds us, to rules, to commandments, to commitments, to obligations.  In fact, the word "religion" comes from a Latin work mean "to bind or tie up".

So back to the gospel passage today - Jesus is a sign of contradiction - in a world living against God, he lives for God and provokes opposition and resistance. Now, if you're going to walk with Jesus - and likewise live for God - duck.  Because you will get opposition and resistance.  Listen, Jesus forewarned us:  if you would be my disciple, deny yourself, take up your cross daily and follow me.  The Lenten Season - and especially Holy Week, just about eight days from now - reminds us that the road to glory passes by the Way of the Cross.

Like I said, after hearing the gospel reading, really the only question we should be asking ourselves is, whose side are we on?  Are we living for God or against him? Is our life a "Yes' to the will of the Father; or is it a "no"?

The great saint, Saint Augustine - before he was a great saint - prayed to God:  "Convert me - but not yet".   He didn't want to tie himself down. But, to be a Christian - like being a good basketball player - means learning the rules and making them second nature to you; it means discipline - you got to practice religiously - to keep at it and take the advice of your coaches.  

To be a Christian is not a burden; it is a gift, a gift that brings you true joy and real freedom.

Blessed Pope John Paul II, in his post-jubilee Apostolic Letter, Novo Millenio Ineunte, reminds us that since we are called to be holy, that to become holy is the purpose of our lives on earth, then it would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity marked by a minimalist ethic and a superficial religiosity.

Of course, St. Augustine did convert; and then he realized what a fool he had been.  "Late have I loved thee", he would later say to God.  Fortunately he wasn't too late.

Lent invites us to conversion - a turning to God and a turning away from sin; conversion is a “saying yes” to God and a “saying no” to those contradictions in our lives that have us settling for mediocrity and superficiality.

Lent is an invitation to conversion - because there can be a "too late".

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