Sunday, March 14th, 2021

‘Ierusalem libera’: a Sermon for Lætare Sunday

Mount Sinai, in Arabia, has the same meaning in the allegory as Jerusalem, the Jerusalem which exists here and now; an enslaved city, whose children are slaves. Whereas our mother is the heavenly Jerusalem, a city of freedom (Galatians 4, 25-26).

In our times, there are plenty of reasons for us to feel trammeled or enslaved; whereas St Paul spends much of his discourse today pointing out our liberty. What are we to make of this?

Firstly, we ought to ask: Freedom from what? What makes this maternal and heavenly Jerusalem a free city? It is not superfluous question. For you and I, the words liberty and freedom have decidedly political connotations; for the modern American, this is the first sort of freedom we think of. Political freedom is an immense good, unquestionably. But this is not the sort of liberty of which the sacred liturgy speaks.

To be sure, the generation of Catholics who first heard this letter proclaimed in their churches would have been keenly aware of something. Scholars speculate that St Paul’s Galatian epistle was composed sometime during the decade of 50 AD. At that time, Jerusalem had not yet been besieged and sacked by the legions of Titus. Nevertheless, Jerusalem was a politically enslaved city when St Paul was writing. But this political bondage was simply a clear manifestation of a more profound spiritual bondage.

We might say the same thing for our city in our times.

So, to answer our original question—indeed, Catholic freedom is not political or cultural freedom, but freedom of another sort. It is an interior freedom: more specifically, freedom from sin and its eternal effects.

Yet how has this come to be? Surely not by way of our own cleverness or strength. The cause of our liberty is Holy Baptism. The point is driven home by an ancient poem, composed by Pope Damasus and inscribed (at that time) near the baptistry in St Peter’s Basilica: 

Una Petri sedes unum verumque lavacrum

Vincula nulla tenent quem liquor iste lavat.[1]  

Which I translate thus: 

The Seat of Peter is one; and there is one, true bath:

No chains can hold the one who this water cleanses.

No chains, indeed, can hold the Baptized. This is why the martyrs in their chains were the freest of men. And this is also helpful for us to bear ever in mind. Surely we must cling tenaciously to the traditional faith; but we can never afford to forget the spring out of which this faith began to flow in us. It is not party loyalty, not natural stubbornness, not even patriotism which is the source of our liberty. The beginning of all Catholic freedom is Baptism.    

So indeed, the chains of no tyrant can hold us, which is why the Church can command us to rejoice today.—God gives no impossible commands, after all. So when our introit bids Jerusalem to rejoice, we now know what St Paul means by that heavenly Jerusalem: it is the free city of the Baptized. And compared with the liberty of this heavenly city, all earthly freedom (where it exists!) is temporary and relative.

Today we reach the middle of our Lenten discipline; and in some ways we ought to cultivate the happiness of a catechumen or a neophyte. Remember and cherish, dear friends, your Holy Baptism. We happy citizens of the free city of Jerusalem must indeed rejoice today. ‘Christ,’ we should say, ‘Christ, you have baptized me; you have baptized me and thereby made me free. I praise and adore you. And my heart beats high for the beautiful city that you have fashioned. Carry me there, Christ; so that I may catch sight of you and belong to you, and nevermore be parted from you.’      


[1] Schuster, The Sacramentary, vol III, p 434.

{Art Credit: Zacarías González Velázquez (1763-1834), The Baptism of St Francis of Assisi (c 1787); El Prado} 

Homilies & Sermons