This is the way to get to the heart of liberty, and make every day an Independence Day.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
I love that snippet from Emma Lazarus’ poem, the one mounted in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. With her weathered green skin, Lady Liberty stands proud and tall: visited by millions of tourists each year, acknowledged by tens of thousands in the midst of their daily commute on the ferry, perpetually glanced at by joggers and cyclists warding off their urban claustrophobia.
In fact, when I lived at St. Joseph’s in Greenwich Village I would often walk south along the Hudson River for a chance to stretch the legs and breathe some fresh air myself. I’d soon see the matron of Liberty Island off in the distance, remembering that, since I am part Lebanese, some of my own ancestors were likely greeted by her.
For freedom Christ set us free (Galatians 5:1)
The Gospel that falls on the Fourth of July this year provides a perfect meditation for our holiday: Jesus came into his own town. And there people brought to him a paralytic lying on a stretcher (cf. Mt 9:1-2). Placed right at the feet of our Lord is a man whose life has been decidedly unfree.
A paralytic. His ailment, his problem, had become his very identity. But there he is, after many long years no doubt, lying there in a true act of faith. What follows speaks to us very profoundly. It dismantles one of the devil’s oldest tactics: tie our sins so closely to us we identify with them and cease to think of ourselves in any other light. That lie is why we’re so often tempted to delay asking for mercy: “I know I’m just going to keep doing the same thing, so what’s the point.” It tempts us to admit defeat even before walking out the door of the confessional: “Yes, I suppose I’ve been forgiven. But I don’t feel any different. I know I will just keep doing the same things.”
These patterns of thought are a trap, a kind of blackmail. Preoccupied with the past or discouraged by a supposedly inevitable future, we feel walled in by our own weakness. There is only one antidote and it’s very simple. So simple, in fact, we have a hard time with it: confidence in God’s goodness.
“We must have confidence,” wrote Father Jean d’Elbée, “not in spite of our miseries but because of them, since it is misery which attracts mercy.” St. Paul believed it too: He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that Christ may dwell with me (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Does this mean sin is a good thing? Certainly not. It simply means the Lord co-opts even our failures as an occasion to love us, leaving the devil without a leg to stand on.
First things first
Courage, child. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth are stunning in their simplicity, intimacy, and warmth. In other words, “Before anything else, I am confirming your faith and infusing into your soul confidence. I am adopting you. Lift up your heart, for you must no longer think of yourself merely as ‘a paralytic.’ I give you a new identity in me: Child. Your sins are forgiven.”
To some it was an outrageous blasphemy: “Forgiveness of sins? Impossible!” It’s only at that moment, to convert the hearts of those still troubled, that Jesus performs the miracle.
Let us not miss the wonders of God’s providence here: Had this man not been paralyzed, not had this weakness, who knows where he would have been that day? He might have been dismissive of Jesus, having convinced himself he had no need for the Son of God. Or, had he been so focused on his paralysis as to cease hoping for a life of freedom and mobility, he would not have bothered with being brought to Jesus. And had Jesus performed the miracle straight away the man might have gleefully run off! Grateful, yes, but still lacking his deeper freedom, never having heard those words which continue to resound: Child. Your sins are forgiven.
Indeed, to be on our knees before the Lord—to be lying at his feet—means all our illusions of self-sufficiency have vanished, and we’re in the best posture possible for receiving everything from Jesus.
Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened (Matthew 11:28)
On the southern tip of Manhattan, just across the way from our national image of political Libertas, there is another statue: Mother Seton above the door at what was once the location of her family home, now a Catholic church. Further north, Mother Cabrini has her arms cast wide, ready to embrace all who enter the portal of her shrine. And the figures of Jesus, Mary, and the saints that adorn parishes and homes all across our country—these, too, are our statues of liberty, the liberty every human person longs for, immigrant and native alike: liberty from sin, liberty from death.
So in a way, then, every day is an Independence Day. For we look to the light of the lamp lifted and aglow beside the golden doors of our tabernacles and above the doors of our confessionals. We come in our tiredness, our poverty, our wretchedness, longing for a home, yearning to breathe free—and finding that we can.
~This article appears in this month’s edition of Magnificat, and is reprinted here with the generous permission of the author.
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