As Jesus addressed a crowd gathered at a fishing village on the shores of Galilee known as Capernaum, his adoptive domicile after leaving Nazareth, he experienced one of several low points in his ministry: upon hearing him talk about the Bread of Life – nourishment for the soul, an invitation to intimacy with the Lord, his body becoming food in an exchange of love and self-giving – a number of people walked away.
Rather than feel discouraged, Jesus turned to his disciples, some of whom he had met on the same shores, and asked provocatively: “Do you also want to go?”
This may sound like a strange question coming from a leader. Yet, he was exemplifying that his words inviting them to an intimacy on a special level, the mystery of faith that we celebrate at the eucharist, were not part of a package deal. They were non-negotiable and required a loving and joyful submission in full freedom.
Simon (called Peter) – the husband and fisherman who had left everything to follow Jesus – was the first to respond: “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
The question posed by our Lord remains as relevant as ever and is being put to us today. The project of loving mercy that embraces us as we are, finds us where we are and guides us to a place of well-being, peace, harmony and even joy – a place we call ‘salvation’ – requires nothing short of our free acceptance.
Our response cannot be forced. It must well-up from the recesses of a heart that yearns for love and intimacy. We are endowed with the freedom to walk away, to prefer the artificial momentary high that ultimately destroys us, if that is what our heart desires.
Jesus loves us too much to force us into anything or give us up to the valley of death into which we wade so willingly. But our freedom is a truly precious gift because it is the basis of our true response in love – a love that is led by attraction not diktat, a love that does not shy away from our vulnerable, fragile being.
Pope Francis recently highlighted this point quite beautifully during one of his Wednesday audiences:
“Freedom makes one free to the extent to which it transforms a person’s life and directs it towards good,” the Pope said.
“In order to be truly free, we not only need to know ourselves on the psychological level but, above all, to practise truth in ourselves on a more profound level… freedom must disturb us, it must constantly question us, so that we might move ever deeper into what we really are… Freedom makes us free, it makes us joyful, it makes us happy.”
At this blessed season of Christmastide, as we celebrate the birth of God who is love as a vulnerable baby in a manger, let us feel the loving embrace of the Lord who is inviting us to contemplate his loving mercy and, in turn, share his mercy and loving care with one another.
The Christmas narrative includes a wonderful series of invitations to different categories of people.
When the shepherds – as the despised poor of Israel, deposited on the margins of society – are told of the birth of the Saviour, they decide to go and see this sign for themselves and are met with a baby in swaddling clothes in a manger. And the Three Wise Men, guided by a star from afar, are filled with joy when they find the one who is to be born a King. Only Herod is not amused and his reaction is as violent as it is tragic.
The Christmas narrative is also about a God that freely chooses to become a vulnerable human being to lift us up from our own frailty and sin to true and energising freedom; the freedom to love, and bathe in Divine Love. Indeed, several of the beautiful carols that form an integral part of our cultural heritage reflect the journey from the peripheries of our own being to the light of the manger in Bethlehem.
To whom shall we go? We are free to decide. May our freedom be guided by the light and warm embrace of the mercy and love that we celebrate at Christmastide.
I wish everyone a blessed and peaceful new year.
Charles Scicluna is Archbishop of Malta.
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