Did you know that we are all slaves – and have you noticed how often the topic of slavery comes up in Scripture and in Salvation History? We can see it in some recent posts here: last Wednesday we discussed how St. Patrick was kidnapped and sold into slavery, and then returned after his escape to convert his former slave masters. Two days later we celebrated the Solemnity of St. Joseph, whose forerunner Joseph son of Jacob had also been sold into slavery. An impressive number saints have been slaves at some point, as recently as St. Josephine Bakhita, who died in 1947.
Why is slavery so prevalent? We Catholics know that in the Bible and in the history of God’s interaction with humanity there are different levels of meaning. In another recent post, for instance, we talked about leprosy in scripture as a metaphor for sin; in much the same way slavery represents our attachment to sin. Why else has the Church’s Office of readings placed so much emphasis on the Book of Exodus during the first weeks of Lent? God’s action in freeing the Hebrews from servitude to the King of Egypt is a foreshadowing of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Through his Passion, Death, and Resurrection he frees all of us from slavery: not thralldom to any human Pharaoh, but our own sinfulness.
While Jesus himself was free from any attachment to sin, his human ministry inevitably reflected human servitude. Although we rightly call him the King of Kings, for instance, he didn’t look like a king when he lived on Earth. As Jesus himself told Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36). In fact, St. Paul tells us “though he was in the form of God, [Jesus Christ] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave (δούλου in Greek), being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:6-7) St. Paul seems to be suggesting that to be man is therefore to be a slave – since of course, we’re all slaves, to sin. Jesus took the form of a slave so that by his death and resurrection he might break the bonds of sin that hold all of us in servitude. That’s why it’s Good News, Evangelion (Eὐαγγέλιον) in Greek, Gospel in Old English.
Christ has broken our chains, but here’s the catch: we need to be willing to shake them off, get up, and follow him. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) And in fact, a quick search of all four Gospels finds at least twenty instances of Jesus inviting his disciples to “follow” him.
The problem is, that’s not as easy as it sounds for those of us who are Slaves to Sin. The bonds of sin have been there so long, they feel like a part of us. Anyone who’s worn a ring for a long time knows what that’s like. I once had to send my wedding ring out to be resized. My finger was discolored and actually disfigured where the ring usually rested. Not only that, I was constantly feeling for it, not even consciously, but out of a reflexive sense that something was missing . . . something that was supposed to be there.
I mentioned above that the Exodus story takes a prominent place in the liturgical observances of Lent. We might notice that the Hebrews did not go straight from slavery under Pharaoh to the Promised Land, but spent forty years in the desert trying to shake off their desire to return to the well-known comforts of bondage. More than once we see them yearning to go back to the predictability of a slave’s existence:
Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:3)
Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving; and the people of Israel also wept again, and said, “O that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (Numbers 11:4-6)
They weren’t ready to enter the Promised Land until their desire to move forward was stronger than their longing to back to their old, well-known chains.
The forty days of Lent are intended to be our own forty years in the desert. The penances and prayers of this penitential season are designed to help us turn away from our “strong craving” for whatever Fleshpots of Egypt we have in our own lives, and direct our gaze instead in the direction of the Promised Land.
Now, as we enter into Holy Week, the Church invites us to accompany Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, with its Passion Narrative to remind us what the sequel is to that ironic Triumphal entry. Through the Triduum we have the opportunity to pick up our cross and follow Our Lord to Calvary and, through the tomb, to the True Triumph, Easter Sunday. After all, we have nothing to lose but our chains.
(Feature Image top of page: “Joseph Sold Into Slavery” by Cornelis van Poelenburgh, early 17th Century)