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As most are aware, freedom of speech was not a cherished commodity within the former Soviet Union and most all were afraid to speak out in public. One incident (true or not, makes the point): During his years as premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev denounced many of the policies and atrocities of Joseph Stalin. Once, as he censured Stalin in a public meeting, Khrushchev was interrupted by a shout from a heckler in the audience. “You were one of Stalin’s colleagues. Why didn’t you stop him?” Without hesitation, Khrushchev roared, ”Who said that?” An agonizing silence followed as nobody in the room dared move a muscle for fear of being implicated. Then Khrushchev replied quietly, “Now you know why.”
However, this fear did not stop people from speaking out in private or even making jokes. Armenia, a former state of the USSR, had Radio Armenia, a fictitious radio station, which was the setting of many jokes about the Soviet Union. Their slogan: “Ask us whatever you want, we will answer you whatever we want.” Example:
Radio Armenia was asked: “Is it true that the poet Mayakovsky committed suicide?”
Radio Armenia answered: “Yes, it is true, and even the record of his very last words is preserved: ‘Don’t shoot, comrades.’”
Another (this was during the time of Reagan):
Q: Is it true that there is freedom of speech in the Soviet Union, just like in the USA?
A: In principle, yes. In the USA, you can stand in front of the White House in Washington, DC, and yell, “Down with Reagan!”, and you will not be punished. Equally, you can also stand in Red Square in Moscow and yell, “Down with Reagan!”, and you will not be punished.
There are times when we are truly free and there are times, as in the former Soviet Union, when we know that our freedom has certain limits to it.
The same is true within our relationship with God (minus the threat of violence that we saw in the Soviet Union). The Apostle Paul teaches us, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” And St. Peter writes, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” We are free from the captivity of sin so that we might worship and serve our God without fear and do so in holiness and righteousness.
Yet, there are times when we can act as though we are still captives in chains, even after Christ has set us free.
Harry Houdini, the famed escape artist issued a challenge wherever he went. He could be locked in any jail cell in the country, he claimed, and set himself free quickly and easily. Always he kept his promise, but one time something went wrong.
Houdini entered the jail in his street clothes; the heavy, metal doors clanged shut behind him. He took from his belt a concealed piece of metal, strong and flexible. He set to work immediately, but something seemed to be unusual about this lock. For thirty minutes he worked and got nowhere. An hour passed, and still he had not opened the door. By now he was bathed in sweat and panting in exasperation, but he still could not pick the lock.
Finally, after laboring for two hours, Harry Houdini collapsed in frustration and failure against the door he could not unlock. But when he fell against the door, it swung open! His jailer had forgotten to lock the cell!
Christ has set us free, but at times, we can still believe that we are chained. The result is that we look a good bit like the poor fella in our Gospel reading: “As Jesus stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs… he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.”
He was possessed, tormented by the demons. We too can be possessed, tormented by our own demons, those things that just won’t seem to let go of us. Those memories, sins, hurts, that follow us no matter where we go or what we do. They refuse to allow joy to be more than superficial. Just as we feel ourselves rising out of it, the devil reminds us of our past and pulls us back down.
The possessed man wore no clothes. Remember, back in the beginning, when Adam and Eve walked in the Garden, they were naked. Of this, Scripture says, “The man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” But after they ate of the fruit, “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” And when God again walked in the Garden, they hid themselves from him. When God asked why they hid, Adam replied, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” They were afraid. They were ashamed to appear before God, because of their nakedness, because of their sin.
Perhaps you’ve never had reason to, but I have felt shame for my sin to such an extent, that I didn’t want to pray. I didn’t want to have to come before God naked, in my sin. I don’t even want to look up, for fear that he will see my face.
Like the possessed man, haunted by his demons and running around naked, we too can be haunted by those sins that possess us and the shame we experience can drive us from God; and in the end, like the possessed man, through our fear and shame, we can find ourselves walking amongst the tombs, that is, walking as though we were still dead in sin, never realizing that we have been set free. We are Houdini, trying to break out of a prison that is already unlocked. And when Jesus comes to us and asks, ”What is your name?” We respond as the possessed man, “Legion.” We respond with the name of our own self condemnation. I am Legion. I am Sin. I am Pride. I am Lust. I am Greed. I am dead.
Why? Do you know what words you are least likely to believe coming from me, a priest? Perhaps I’ve shared this with you before, but during the Sacrament of Confession, following the confession and absolution (the assurance of God’s mercy and grace toward you), I will say to you, “The Lord has put away all your sins.” I would wager that most do not believe those words. “The Lord has put away all your sins.” And in our hearts, “If you say so Father, but we both know that’s not true.” The demon clings to us, we bow our heads in shame, and we declare, “I am Legion.” Captives even though we have been set free.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus told those who believed in him that if anyone practices sin, they are a slave to sin—that is, they are captives to sin, but that if they believed in the Truth, in Him, they would be set free, to which he adds, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” “The Lord has put away all your sins.” You have not been set free by the priest, you have been set free by the Son: the very Son of God and your name is not Legion. Your name is Child of God.
Following the Great Fire of London, late in the 17th century, St. Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, was completed. On one occasion Wren was making a tour of the work in progress. He came upon a man at work and asked him: “What are you doing?” The man said: “I am cutting this stone to a certain size and shape.” He came to a second man and asked him what he was doing. The man said: “I am earning so much money at my work.” He came to a third man at work and asked him what he was doing. The man paused for a moment, straightened himself and answered: “I am helping Sir Christopher Wren build St. Paul’s Cathedral.”
The locks and chains that bound you have been cast off. You are free to serve your God without fear. When you are asked your name, do not give some half hearted answer or act as one still captive, but straighten yourself and in complete faith declare, I am Child of God.
Let us pray:
From the depths of our hearts
we thank You, Dear Lord,
for Your infinite kindness in coming to us.
How good You are to us!
With Your most holy Mother and all the angels,
we praise Your mercy and generosity toward us,
We thank You for nourishing our souls
with Your Sacred Body and Precious Blood.
We will try to show our gratitude to You
in the Sacrament of Your love,
by obedience to Your holy commandments,
by fidelity to our duties,
by kindness to our neighbor
and by an earnest endeavor
To become more like You in our daily conduct.