The celebration of Independence Day gains particular poignance in a year when freedom of religion, of speech – of thought – has steadily lost ground in the U.S. But true freedom comes from identity. We are freest when we know most truly who we are.
The Men’s Bible Study at my parish, St. Robert’s shifts into lower gear during the summer, but a few of us (the Few, the Proud) are going through the Gospel of John a couple of chapters at at time. We just covered chapters 7-9 this Saturday.
In chapter 9 of John, Jesus heals a man born blind. The man’s blindness isn’t his fault. He is born into a world scarred by sin, where injury, illness, and defects are a normal part of existence. And like him, we are all born blind. We need the light of Jesus to show us our identity. When we are firmly grounded in that, we find a freedom to be bold, to speak and to act, that can be breathtaking.
Look at the man born blind. Few of those who passed him day after day did. Once healed, his neighbors weren’t even sure if he was the blind beggar they’d passed day after day (9:8-9). He had to tell them. He was an outcast, just as invisible to them as they were unseeable to him. And then Jesus – unasked, unanticipated – heals him. “‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.’ So he went and washed and came back seeing” (9:7). In the verses that follow, the man progresses from being a nobody to being a somebody, from being ignored to speaking up, from ignorance of Jesus to worship.
When first asked, he knows Jesus’ name but not where he is (9:11-12). But as he is repeatedly questioned, first by his neighbors, then by the Pharisees, he comes to see more clearly who Jesus is and speaks more and more boldly. To his neighbors, he says, “He is a prophet” (9:17). The Pharisees say that Jesus, healing on the sabbath, must be a sinner. The man responds, “Whether he is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see”(9:25). Their opposition and ridicule only increase his boldness until he begins to question them: “Do you, too, want to become his disciples?” and implicitly, “How in the world can you deny that a man with such power comes from God?”(9:27-33).
When the Pharisees insult him and throw him out (9:34), Jesus finds him and invites him to be a disciple. The man sees, believes, and worships Jesus (9:35-38). From the freedom to speak boldly – he, a nobody, to the Pharisees, the “Somebodies” of his day – arises the freedom to worship the One who freed him.
Jesus gives sight. Jesus gives freedom. He can only give what He has, and he sees, speaks, and acts with perfect vision and perfect freedom. But His perfect vision and perfect freedom come from Another: the Father. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus attributes all that he is, speaks, and does to the Father. “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me” (7:16). “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing; it is my Father who glorifies me” (8:54). “The works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness to me” (10:25). “[K]now and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (10:38).
Finally, Jesus so receives all that He is and does from the Father that He can say with absolute authority, “I and the Father are one” (10:30). The gift of all the Father has and is to Jesus comes from the Father’s love. Jesus passes on this gift to us by laying down His life for us. “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again: this charge I have received from my Father” (10:17-18).
Jesus not only gave the man born blind his sight: He gave him his identity. The man came to know that he was worth healing, that he had a face and a voice. Out of this identity he speaks with boldness to the powers that be. Out of this identity he is able to see who Jesus is, and he is able to give himself back, freely, to Jesus in worship.
The U.S., as much as we love it, is fast descending into a “soft totalitarianism” that tells us who we are, what we should think, what we should think, and how we should act. Our identity, the State says, is children of the State. We should look only to It for who we are, what we need, and what we should think, say, and do.
The government is our Big Brother: we simply need to trust It. It knows what’s best for us. If we but surrender our freedom to It, Big Brother will take care of us. It kindly, mercifully, thoroughly cleanses our minds of all that would not take on Its loving, gentle yoke. It does this through Hollywood, the news media, and most of all through the propagandizing machine of the public school system. “Come to It, all you who labor and are heavily burdened by trying to figure out who you are, what your purpose is, how to think and feel.” Let It do all of that for you. Become as little children and receive Its kingdom. Stop hating: accept. Stop judging: tolerate. Stop being: be absorbed.
NO. We are CHRISTIANS. We receive our identity from Jesus Christ alone, Who receives His identity from the Father. He is The Word spoken by the Father, and in St. John of the Cross’s words, “In that one Word, He said everything.” Yet God has more to say, through us, the Body of Christ. In Jesus, each of us is a word as well, spoken with equal love, by the Father to the world. The world needs the word that each of us is, desperately – although it hates, murders, harasses, ridicules, excludes, and otherwise tries to silence us. We need to stay firm in our vision, bold in our speech, absolutely free to live out of our identity as beloved children of the Father, so that others might see and be free. All in love, brothers and sisters – we must be free of hatred most of all. Fire off the skyrockets! This is our Independence Day.