People are funny about their chosen slaveries. The other day I saw a guy driving down the road dragging a boat behind him like a ball and chain. I’m sure he invests thousands of his discretionary dollars to keep it in good repair, otherwise it could sink and take him down with it. Yet if you ask such a slave why he devotes so much of himself to his boat he’s likely to say “Freedom!”
At the same time, most people looking at this Sunday’s gospel reading in which Jesus expects his followers to leave their earthly attachments to follow him without looking back would think such slavery unreasonable. Leaving home without even saying goodbye?
We do it all the time. Slaves to alcohol leave their spouses gradually without saying goodbye. So do slaves to narcotics and nicotine, as well as all things nautical. Anyplace you enslave your heart is your home, as St. Paul tells us in our second reading (Gal 5:1, 13-18). He was a master at snapping the bonds of his earthly slavery and ascending to his spiritual self, and here he tells us why this is so important:
Live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh. For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want. But if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
Just as the slave to his boat must pay constant attention to its maintenance for his own safety—and perceived freedom—we are called to enslave ourselves to Christ for our own freedom—and true salvation.
Still, when we read Sunday’s gospel passage we can imagine how jarring it was for Jesus’ disciples to be confronted with marching orders that were effective immediately (Lk 9:51-62). They wanted to follow Christ while clinging to the things binding them to this earth—the stuff of life they believed gave them their spiritual freedom, like hearth and home.
“I will follow you, Lord,” one said, “but first let me say farewell to my family at home.”
To him Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”
But as the prophets of old, the disciples, and even Jesus himself came to realize, when asking people to cross the divide between the earthly and the heavenly, they require bridges. These are outward signs our minds can grasp, thus delivering the needed grace to free our spirits. They are called sacraments. Our spiritual leaders knew such symbolism and rituals provided the mental transition we needed to go from slavery to spirituality, freeing us to heed our calling. In Sunday’s first reading (1 Kgs 19:16b, 19-21), the prophet Elijah reluctantly allows Elisha his own sacramental rituals to free his spirit for the task ahead:
“Please, let me kiss my father and mother goodbye,” Elisha said, “and I will follow you.” Elijah answered, “Go back! Have I done anything to you?” Elisha left him, and taking the yoke of oxen, slaughtered them; he used the plowing equipment for fuel to boil their flesh, and gave it to his people to eat. Then Elisha left and followed Elijah as his attendant.
Sacraments are Christ’s capitulation to our physical slaveries. They are earthly bridges from slavery to our spiritual freedom. As you receive the Eucharist with your family this Sunday, let it prepare your spirit for an eventual crossing to a New World.