B - Advent - The Second Sunday
The Christian’s Chains
By Rev. John H. Stapleton
The messengers brought back the news of Christ’s wonderful work to John in prison, or, as the Latin text has it, in chains. The Gospel gives no details of John’s captivity, but fancy can easily suggest what must have been the lot of the holy victim in the dungeon of the Castle of Machaerus where he was presumably imprisoned. Vice is brutal, and its victims must wince under exquisite tortures. The Baptist had rebuked a bloody tyrant, offended a lewd woman and her daughter, a dancing girl. Forged by such a combination of wickedness and malice, the chains that bore down his saintly body must have been heavy and galling; the shackles that bound his hands and feet must have bitten savagely into his flesh, in the cold, black cell where he was held in durance vile. He was in truth a living sacrifice to the holiness of God’s law, awaiting the hour to bend the neck to the axe of complete immolation, for “he must decrease.”
Yet John the Baptist, although subjected to like trials and reserved for a similar fate, was far different from the numberless other hapless ones who writhed under the cruel lash of Herod’s hate. Herod’s prisoner, he was bound to another as well; his bondage was double. To the fetters of steel that racked his body were added the invisible and infinitely more powerful chains of Divine love. While his flesh was in the bond of anguish to a human tyrant, his spirit was in thrall to the heavenly Master. Long before he pronounced his own sentence by censuring the king, the charity of Christ had won and enslaved him; he gloried in the ties that knit his soul to the gentle Jesus, a willing captive under the sweet yoke of the Redeemer. Men might do what they would, kings might rise up in the power and havoc in their wrath; they might confine him in the worst of prisons, break his body and strike off his head; he would still, as long as he lived, speak and act under the urging of that charity which bound him and remain a true liegeman to the Master who owned his affections. For Christ “must increase.”
Now the glorious attitude of St. John the Baptist – his flesh in restraint because of sin and evil, his spirit bound up in the love of God, ought to remind us especially in this holy season, that the ties which bind a true Christian to the Creator should partake of the nature of this double bondage, that the genuine service of Christ comports naturally and necessarily a total subjection of man, both in body and in soul, to Him Who is our master and Who made us what we are. The love of God – this yoke every Christian must put on who would acknowledge the debt he owes his God. Restraint of the flesh – by such chains alone can the creature be brought to serve Christ as He will to be served. But all this bondage is such only in name; the reality is the freedom of the children of God.
There is first the spiritual bond of love or charity, that which unites the soul to the Creator, “to the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In this did St. Paul glory more than in all his raptures and revelations; except separation from it he feared nothing and he defied all power under God to tear him from it. “I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” What is the first and the greatest commandment? This: “Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with all thy strength and with all thy mind.” This then is the first law of our being. We are not only bound to love our God, but, loving Him, are bound to Him by what the prophet Osee calls “the band of love, the cords of Adam,” as perfect and as strong as the bonds of life itself. For who is such a prisoner, who is such a slave as the lover? What chains are so compelling as those of charity? We know from the Apostle that it is the perfect bond, when he tells us that union of the spirit of the creature with God is completed “in the bond of perfection.” The example of the holy Precursor and of all the holy martyrs shows us clearly that the soul that loves God perfectly is attached to Him more strongly than to life itself; and they boldly exclaimed in the words of St. Paul, even as every true disciple of the Lord should do: “Who then shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or persecution, or the sword?”
The bondage of servitude to God is made perfect and double by the subjection of the body. In St. John we see how this perfection was attained. He treated his flesh like a captive. His life in the desert was one long self-denial. Yet this was not enough for him. Other chains he craved for his body not yet sufficiently reduced to bondage. And therefore he braved the wrath of Herod for the sake of those chains to bear him down. The same charity urged St. Paul, who, with St. Peter, was also a great penitent and with him carried Nero’s chains and with him gave up his life for Christ.
The Apostle’s warning is one we would do well to ponder: “They that are Christ’s have crucified their flesh with its vices and concupiscenses.” This word of revealed wisdom has but one meaning, namely, that every soul dwelling in flesh stained by Adam’s sin and rejoicing in being in bond to Christ through love, has so rejoiced because it enslaved the rebellious and dangerous forces which reside in the bodily members and threaten destruction to the spiritual tie. This is in the nature of things. There are in the flesh base instincts, vile passions, animal appetites and propensities. These war against the spirit and against its union with God. What St. Paul saw, we all see and feel and know: “I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind and captivating me in the law of sin, that is in my members.” This “law” seeks to prevail; and if it does, not God, but the flesh is the Master of the soul, and the bond of charity is broken. These forces of sin if loosed will enslave the spirit. Therefore, bondage must be their lot, else love will perish. Chains, then, for the flesh must the truly Christian soul provide, a whip for the body, a prison for its vices and concupiscenses. The great Apostle practiced as well as preached it; “I chastise my body and bring it into subjection.” Subjection to what? Subjection to God and His law, that it, as well as the soul, may serve and obey, that it with the soul may share the yoke of bondage, that it with the soul, that is the whole man, may offer to the Maker the perfect homage of servitude. “That you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing unto God, your reasonable service.”
But it must be confessed that we “speak a human thing” when we apply to the condition of those who offer to God this reasonable service such terms as bondage and enslavement, which are ignoble and betoken baseness. But God’s service is the noblest estate of the creature of God, the highest exercise of his God-given faculties, the only condition in which he fulfills the purpose of his being. It is only thus that the creature stands in his true relation to his Creator, for man was made to love and serve God; and it is truth, we are told, that makes us free. Love of God, then, and self-restraint are less chains than freedom from chains. This is not only liberty, but it is the only possible liberty rightly understood, the liberty of the children of God. God’s enemies are the slaves of sin.
For what is charity practically but freedom from sin? Those who love evil cannot love God. Therefore the Psalmist says: “You that the love the Lord, hate evil.” Sin is the breaking of the Divine Commandments. But we know from the testimony of the Blessed Savior Himself that the whole law is summed up in these two words; love God and love thy neighbor for the love of God. He then who sins, in whatever manner he sins, by the very act of sinning. Departs from the charity he owes the Divine Master; while this charity is preserved in one’s soul just so long as one succeeds in avoiding the nets of evil. Wherefore Christ said; “If any man love Me, he will keep My Word.”
Furthermore, the purpose of the subjection of the flesh is solely to escape the thralldom of the passions and the tyranny of the worst of tyrants, the devil. Man controls his blind instinct or they control him. It is the same with him as it is with society confronted by the forces of crime and anarchy, destructive agencies which aim at the overthrow of law, order, peace and liberty. The restraint on the body politic are police and armies, prisons and gibbets, without which the liberty of the citizen has so security and the community itself no guaranty of permanence. Self-denial and chastisement of the flesh by mortification is like manner protect the soul and the liberty of man in the spiritual world, repress the moral anarchy of sin and hold in check the foes that aim at destroying the dominion of God. Restraint is the price of peace, liberty and life itself. That is why the Baptist warns us to do penance or we shall perish all, perish under the brutal heel of the rebellious senses.
If then, we say that man by sinning breaks loose from the bond of the love of God and emancipates himself from all control over his inferior appetites, it is in truth, as says the prophet, the freedom of the wild ass’ colt, to wander about and lose himself in the barren wastes of evil, to fall blindly and helplessly into the snare of the enemy, to wallow shamefully in the mire where sin impounds its victims. It is the liberty of the prodigal son who slaved for a pitiless master and not only lived in the company of ignoble swine, but to appease his hunger are the very husks which the swine did not eat. And how well do we all know by observation as well as by experience that this is the real bondage, however such unfortunates may seek to obscure the truth and boast of their independence, their freedom of thought, their liberty of action! The world does not know more ignominious slaves than these.
Divine truth speaking by the mouth of inspired men has always thus stigmatized those who repudiate the authority of God and give a free rein to the lower desires of nature. Holy Job speaks of “the cords of iniquity and the chains of sin.” “His own iniquity,” says the Psalmist, “catches the wicked and he is fast bound with the ropes of his own sins.” And concerning the proud who seem above all others to brook no dominion or restraint, he says that “pride encompasses them about as a chain.” Try as they may to hide the shame of their servitude to Satan, the hardest of taskmasters, that shame becomes apparent and men see it as St. Peter saw it in the magician: “I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity.”
And so recoils upon themselves the unholy attempt of those who would not have God for Master. If not God, then another and a harder mater. The curse of heaven seems to pursue them. It seems written in the book of Divine Decrees that whose will not serve God freely in the sweet bonds of love and self-control, shall serve unwillingly and bitterly the ruthless tyrant of sin. The Psalmist makes him speak thus: “Let us break the bond asunder and let us cast away their yoke from us.” And immediately it is immediately it is added: “He that dwells in heaven shall laugh at them, and the Lord shall destroy him.” He will rule over them who would not have Him, but the sacred text says: “Thou shall rule them with a rod of iron.” All created things obey Him and serve as His agents at His bidding, even man’s own vices to wreak vengeance upon him for his rebellion.
Although it is John’s voice that rings through the Church during these salutary days of Advent, his example, as well, ought to inspire all good Christians to follow in some degree at least the path he trod. He sought abasement, extinction even, through affection for the lamb of God, in order that He might increase. How little he feared the bondage of the senses, knowing that at that price alone could he be made worthy to love as He deserved, the Redeemer before whose face he was preparing the way! Yet bound as he was by this double bond, according to the manner of speaking of men, what a noble type of the fearless champion of truth and virtue has he ever remained in the memory of mortals? What man ever thought or spoke or acted more freely or gave more spontaneously all that one could give for a noble cause? Neither chains nor prisons could enslave the soul of him who knew no Master but God. And what a contest with the unhappy puppet of sin that sat on a throne and thought himself free? Herod who could not bring his will to obey God, obeyed against his will the behest of an impure woman. He who decreed that his desires should be free, saw the day when he was powerless to thwart them and had to bear their heavy and disgraceful yoke through rivers of blood. Herod, loud, master and king, acknowledging no God, brooking no restraint – whipped like a slave by the rod of his passions! John, in prison, loaded with Herod’s chains – bowing to no force, surrendering to no authority save that of the Creator of the universe!
Here we have the truth so often obscured in the world by falsehood and the glamour of wickedness, the real contrast between the God-fearing man and him who chooses the wrong path in the matter of religion and morality. Appearances are often deceptive; the truly happy and free are not always those who make an outward show. In reality, there is but one bondage, that of sin; one freedom, that of the children of God. This latter let us all endeavor to secure unto ourselves after the example of St. John the Baptist during these days of grace.