“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1).
Saint Paul devotes his epistle to the Galatians to a blistering attack on pharisaism dressed up as Christianity. If it is essential for all of us Christians to become ever more Christian every single day, we must hear Saint Paul’s strong words as directed to us.
Even the true religion can become a mere shell for superstition. It can be co-opted into yet another worldly attempt to gain control of existence, to wield power to stabilize what is impossible to stabilize. Even the holy liturgy can be perverted into gestures of reification.
In today’s first matins reading, Saint Paul forcefully argues, again, that we must surrender every worldly claim to justification in order to receive our justification completely from the merciful grace of God enacted in, and communicated wholly through, Jesus Christ.
The pharisaizing wing of the early Church wanted to require that male Gentile converts to Christianity be circumcised. We might think this an arcane matter of history, but this is the drama every Christian faces. That’s why it’s recorded in the Bible.
What are the habits of thinking and feeling by which WE try to gain a handle on the disorienting demands of life in the Spirit of Jesus? In particular, what religious habits—ways of making moral judgments, say—that have always been comfortable for us do we insist on as being the measure of a divine life which, by definition, must always explode our measures?
“Behold! I, Paul, say to you that if you are circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. And I testify again to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law” (5:2-3).
Saint Paul could not be clearer: there are two ways in life. One either lives absolutely by the grace of Jesus Christ, or one lives by calculations with which we are comfortable—calculations that make us the judge of others, rather than the judged always in need of mercy; calculations that make us the planner, not the planned.
Mystery or magic. Faith or calculation. Freedom or control. The Spirit or the will to power.
As he writes earlier in the letter: “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘the one who is just will live by faith.’ But the law does not rest on faith. On the contrary, ‘Whoever does the works of the law will live by them’” (3:11-12).
I am convinced that Saint Paul is saying we can indeed choose one of two paths. We can go all in for grace, and then the Spirit will direct our lives in a way that is beyond our control, beyond our planning, beyond our comfort.
OR. We can, even as Christians, remain bound to the “law” of worldly estimations of what counts as “reasonable” behavior, what is de rigueur. If I play that latter game, I may or may not have success in it. But I will have made Jesus a dead letter. I will be seeking the justification for my existence in something alien to Jesus. I will have cast my lot in with some ideology or other, something that I can grasp through and through, something at my disposal, something that can tickle my self-satisfaction. And something utterly useless when it comes to actually living life.
“You who want to be justified by the law are estranged from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (5:4).
We must die to everything, everything we thought we knew about life. Then we may rise in the Spirit. We must rebuke every false image of “prudence” or of “natural law,” or any orthodox-seeming disguise for our own will to power.
We are born into a whole set of coordinates: natural instincts, traditions bearing truth, ideologies that deform desire… What dying with Christ means is losing the world that we knew. What rising with Christ means is gaining the world from above, from the hand of the good Father alone, liberated from our selfish gravities, ecstatically bestowed in the Spirit.
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any force: only faith working through love” (v. 6).
We must always have the humility to recognize that the one true faith infused in us at baptism is not ever perfectly appropriated by us. How could it be? The infinite truth of Jesus Christ can only inhabit us thoroughly in the limitless dimensions of eternity.
Here below, every single day we must ask the good Father to open our eyes a little more to the truth we have been given. We must ask every single day that that truth be worked in us a little more, so that we may love a little more than we did the day before.
The answer to this prayer will often come from encounters with those who are not Christians, for the true, the good, the beautiful is refracted through every single human being without exception. We have no monopoly on Jesus Christ as Christians: everything that comes to be comes to be through Him.
Do we want to know Jesus better? We must let our hearts be moved by our neighbors, even the ones who are enemies.
This is a daily dying to self. Everything we consider unassailable is assailable. And if the Father loves you very much, He will assail you. And what will be wrought is detachment from the natural drives and the traditions and the complexities of our desires, so that the good Father can give us the whole world back again, now irradiated with perfect love, thrumming with it, alive with it.
He will detach us even from the immutable commandments—not in the sense of relativizing the fact that certain acts are intrinsically evil, but in the sense that the maturing Christian must not follow the law out of a craven sense of serving a tyrannical god who plays gotcha. The Christian who lives by the Spirit does everything, everything, out of love, which explodes every worldly calculus.
Remove law from its embeddedness in love, and you secularize it. Such law is simply the will to power.
When He loves us, the good Father hacks away all of our illusions, which seem so indubitable and solid to us (our “laws”), until there’s one, golden, cord left, the one joining heaven to earth: the Spirit of Jesus. And everything depends on this Love alone.