“Freedom” is the last word that comes to mind when we think about Lent. Give something up. Compulsory fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. With an endless list of dos and don’ts this season, Lent can feel incredibly stifling.
But Lent is ultimately a season of freedom, because Jesus’ Way of the Cross is one of freedom. Jesus said of his own life, “No one takes it away from me; I lay it down of my own free will.” (Jn 10:18)
So why do we feel like Lent isn’t a journey towards freedom?
Because our culture has distorted and now lost the true meaning of “freedom”. Lawlessness; anarchy; self-centredness: the word “freedom” has come to represent all those values we associate with the profane; it is now an “F” alien to our sacred discourse. We fear the very concept of freedom, thanks to its cheap counterfeits.
Writing in 1952, the Venerable Fulton Sheen identifies two false ideas of freedom, which continue to dominate our society today.
The first counterfeit is the liberal doctrine of freedom, ie., the freedom to do whatever I please. Indeed, we are free to skip school, ignore public health advisories, or play vulgar music loudly on the bus, but that doesn’t mean that we should. The American archbishop explains:
This kind of freedom, in which everyone is allowed to seek his own benefit, produces confusion. There is no liberalism of this particular kind without a world of conflicting egotisms, where no one is willing to submerge himself for the common good. — Ven. Sheen, World’s First Love
The second counterfeit, which arises in response to the first, is that of totalitarian freedom: the right to do whatever you must. Ven. Sheen cites Marxist thinker Friedrich Engels on this doctrine, “A stone is free to fall because it must obey the law of gravitation.” This implies that a man is free when he obeys his dictator.
Correcting these definitions of freedom, Ven. Sheen writes:
The true concept of freedom is, “Freedom is the right to do whatever we ought,” and ought implies goal, purpose, morality, and the law of God. True freedom is within the law, not outside it. I am free to draw a triangle, if I give it three sides, but not, in a stroke of broad-mindedness, fifty-seven sides. I am free to fly on condition that I obey the law of aeronautics. In the spiritual realm, I am also most free when I obey the law of God.
What does spiritual freedom look like? It begins with understanding that the law of God does not enslave us. It helps us to identify how we are currently enslaved. It is only through this awareness that we can seek to set ourselves free.
Yet this freedom from sin is not an end in itself. As Ven. Sheen notes:
True love wants to be free from something for something. A young man wants to be free from the parental yoke that he may love someone beside his parents and thus prolong his life. Freedom of love is, therefore, inseparable from service, from altruism and goodness.
Thus, God desires our freedom so that we can love and serve God and neighbour. This freedom to love is an attribute that we inherit from our heavenly Father, who created us out of his own free will. So the exercise of our freedom to love is the exercise of our identity as children of God.
Let us rehabilitate our understanding of freedom this Lent, as we journey to the Cross of Christ, who freely laid down his life that we may live. Join us on this series Lent: A Journey to Rediscover Freedom as we learn to live in true freedom as children of God.
Led by the Spirit of our God,
we go to fast and pray
With Christ into the wilderness;
we join His paschal way.
“Rend not your garments, rend your hearts.
Turn back your lives to me.”
Thus says our kind and gracious God,
whose reign is liberty.
Written by Louis of VITA Scribes.