“From Slavery to Freedom: the Journey Fueled by Trust and Service”

Homily, Easter Vigil
March 30, 2024; St. Mary’s Cathedral


Just last week I took part in a visit organized for bishops to the civil rights sites in the state of Alabama.  We saw where the famous march from Selma to Montgomery took place, we saw sites where the most horrendous acts of violence against African Americans took place, including the infamous Bloody Sunday, and we heard from people who were involved in the effort. 

We also learned about Catholic participation in the effort, not only in terms of public manifestations but also in giving comfort and aid and refuge to those suffering violence and intimidation.  In particular, St. Jude parish, located just a few blocks from the state capitol that was the destination of the march, provided a place of refuge, comfort and protection for those taking part in the march.

The Measure of Freedom

I will never forget a story recounted by the pastor of that parish.  He told us of an African American woman who took part in the struggle and experienced the oppression of the society and government at the time, while George Wallace was the governor of Alabama.  He said many years later – this would have been in the 1980s or 1990s – the woman was in the same building as the former governor who had been in there for another purpose.  She was waiting at the elevator, and when the doors opened there was Governor Wallace, now sitting in his wheelchair, surrounded by secret service agents.  What to do? 

She stepped inside the elevator, and, when the doors closed, she took the governor’s hand, looked into his eyes, and said: “I want you to know that I love you, and I forgive you for all that you did.”  The pastor went on to say that Governor Wallace would not let go of her hand, and tears visibly welled up in his eyes.

Someone in our group asked a question about how young people respond to all of this.  The pastor replied by saying that when they come and visit the sites there is visible anger, but it is an ill-defined anger, as if unclear as to whom it is directed.  He recounted that in one visit of university students, when he told this story a young woman remarked, “She should never have done that.  He was an evil man and did not deserve that.” 

Looking at these contrasting examples, I ask you: which of these two women is truly free?

The Struggle for Authentic Freedom

The struggle to journey from slavery to freedom is very much what this night is about.  The story began long ago with a people chosen by God who were being held as slaves in Egypt.  We heard about their dramatic deliverance from that slavery tonight, in the third reading for this Easter Vigil liturgy.  The moment had finally arrived in God’s time: the people had been pleading with Him for 430 years but, in God’s plan, this now was the right time.  He raised up Moses to lead the people to freedom.  But for what?  What does Moses tell Pharaoh when he and Aaron appear before him to insist that Pharaoh let God’s people go?  His words are recorded earlier in the book of Exodus: “The God of the Hebrews has come to meet us.  Let us go a three days’ journey in the wilderness, that we may offer sacrifice to the Lord, our God” (Ex 5:3).

This makes it clear: freedom is for the purpose of worshipping God – the one, true God, the God of Israel.  The problem is, the people of Israel kept reverting to slavery, beginning at the very moment of their deliverance from slavery and all throughout their history.  That is, they did not trust that God was really guiding them through that desert wilderness to a land flowing with milk and honey, and even after they arrived there, they envied their powerful pagan neighbors.  And so they made covenants with them and worshipped their idols, rather than maintain fidelity to the God who had made a Covenant with them.  The deal was that they would worship Him alone and obey His Law, and He would watch over them, protect them, and make them prosper.  They didn’t hold up their end of the deal, and even though God held up His, anyway, it came at a high cost for His people

Actually, things are not that much different today.  It all comes down to that same problem: lack of trust.  And this is based on a serious misunderstanding of freedom in our own time.  The late Pope Benedict XVI taught extensively on this, particularly in his widely read Jesus of Nazareth trilogy.  He says there: “… through sin, opposition takes the place of synergy: man, whose will attains fulfillment through becoming attuned to God’s will, now comes to sense that his freedom is compromised by God’s will.  He regards consenting to God’s will, not as his opportunity to become fully himself, but as a threat to his freedom against which he rebels.”[1]  So it’s the same thing: a lack of trust in God, that what He teaches is the true way to authentic freedom and lasting happiness.  The inevitable result is turning something else into God, such as our own will.  In other words, idolatry – something also not escaping Pope Benedict’s notice.  As he says elsewhere, it is “evident that the unlimited arbitrariness of the ability to do all has an idol as its model and not God.”[2]

This then starts a vicious cycle: it begins with the sin of lack of trust, and then drags the human person down ever deeper into sin, which is the very opposite of freedom.  Sin is the true slavery.  True freedom is worshipping the true God.  And what do we call the action by which we come together to worship God?  A service.  We speak of a “worship service.”  It is service that is the hallmark of true freedom.  On this point Pope Benedict cites our very own patron saint as the model of authentic freedom: “For Francis [of Assisi], this extreme humility was above all freedom for service, freedom for mission, ultimate trust in God.”[3]

From Crucifixion to Freedom

To arrive at the true freedom of a disciple of Jesus Christ will always involve a crucifixion of some sort or another.  It necessarily means dying to sin, the very meaning of our baptism.  We see this reflected in an ancient formula for the blessing of baptismal water: “Sanctify this water so that those who are baptized may be crucified with Christ, die with him, be buried with him, and rise again for adoption”[4] (emphasis added).

Yes, it will always involve a crucifixion.  Think of that “extreme humility” of St. Francis.  Think again about the woman who forgave Governor Wallace: think of the crucifixion that she went through suffering all of the oppression and racial violence growing up in the Jim Crow South, the violence and resistance to the campaign for civil rights, her inner struggle to come to the point where she could forgive the man who was ultimately responsible for it all.  This, too, is the service of the worship of God.

This is the Christian way, dying to sin so as to rise with Christ to the glory of a new life.  That means living in a serious way the sacrament of our baptism, and not letting it be simply an empty ritual.  We rejoice tonight that many of our brothers and sisters will enter into this mystery.  They will be immersed in the font, the ancient sign of their death with Christ, walking down into the font as a sign of their going into the tomb with him, then being immersed under water to signify their being buried with him, and then rising out of the font and clothed with a white garment to show that they have put on Christ and share the glory of his Resurrection.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, the fourth-century bishop of that holy city, stated it well to a group of newly-baptized in his famous Jerusalem Catecheses: “,,, when you were immersed in the water it was like night for you and you could not see, but when you rose again it was like coming into broad daylight.  In the same instant you died and were born again; the saving water was both your tomb and your mother.”[5]

 That death and rebirth involves both a “no” to sin and a “yes” to Christ, and so their immersion into the saving waters of baptism will be preceded by an analogous renunciation of sin and Profession of Faith.  In doing so, they will follow an ancient practice of the Church to symbolize what this means: they will face west to renounce sin and the devil, because the west is the place of darkness, since it is the last place where the rays of the rising sun reach; then they will then turn toward the east for their Profession of Faith, east being the place of light, as the rising sun reminds of Jesus rising from the dead, dispelling the darkness of sin and death and casting upon us his healing rays and enlightening us with his truth; east is also representative of heaven, as when God created the heavens and the earth, He put the garden in the east (Gen 2:8).

Human Dignity and the Image of God

Ultimately what this accomplishes is a restoration: sin damages the image of God in which we were originally created, and baptism restores it – that is, it restores it when its meaning is lived out in the life of the believer.  This, then, is the restoration of our human dignity, which derives from that image of God in which we were created.  The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World teaches this quite clearly:

Authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within man.  … man’s dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure.  Man achieves such dignity when, emancipating himself from all captivity to passion, he pursues his goal in a spontaneous choice of what is good …  Since man’s freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the aid of God’s grace can he bring such a relationship with God into full flower.[6]

Let us now go back one last time to that scene to which I have been referring: I said that that woman’s act of forgiveness of the man responsible for her suffering was an act of the worship of God.  It was the worship of God because it was a service rendered to God, the service that changes hearts.  We hear a lot of rhetoric about changing hearts, but this incident proves how hard it can be for that to happen, because it is only love that can do that.  And only God’s grace can make that happen, only His grace can bring to full flower a just relationship with Him and thereby rightly ordered relationships with one another.  And because of that, Governor Wallace himself must have gone through his own inner crucifixion: he manifested visible signs of a change of heart, clearly showing his regret and remorse for what he had done.  Here we see true freedom, peace and goodwill, and how a society can truly flourish.  It is simply living a life of the worship of God, as He has revealed to us in His Son.


“Who will roll back the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” asked the women who went to anoint the body of Jesus.  The stone was large, St. Mark tells us.  Too large for human strength to move it.  That could only be accomplished by an act of God, by God’s grace.  The stone sealed the entrance to the tomb, and God rolled it away so the women who came to do a service for Him could be the first ones to encounter the risen Christ.

What about the stone that seals the entrance to our own heart?  Likewise, only God can roll that away so that we can know the true freedom of serving Him and so come to the saving encounter with His Risen Son.  Let us, then, trust Him to do that, trust Him enough to follow His commandments, which are nothing other than instructions for living in freedom and true happiness. 

Let us do so, so that what we prayed moments ago after the joyful singing of the Gloria, when the bells were rung for the first time after having been silent since the singing of the Gloria on Holy Thursday, may come to pass for us.  May this be the prayer that tonight reminds us to live every day of our lives: “O God, who make this most sacred night radiant with the glory of the Lord’s Resurrection, stir up in your Church a spirit of adoption, so that, renewed in body and mind, we may render you undivided service.”  Amen.


Nuestra adoración en esta Vigilia Pascual es una celebración gozosa de la liberación de la esclavitud a la libertad.  Comenzó hace mucho tiempo con el pueblo elegido por Dios, un pueblo de esclavos en Egipto.  Esta noche, en la tercera lectura de la Vigilia Pascual, escuchamos acerca de su dramática liberación de esa esclavitud.  Moisés le había dicho al Faraón que dejara ir al pueblo de Dios, pero ¿con qué propósito?  Le insiste Moisés al Faraón: “El Dios de los hebreos nos ha salido al encuentro: tenemos que hacer un viaje de tres días por el desierto para ofrecer sacrificios al Señor, nuestro Dios” (Ex 5:3).

El propósito de la libertad, entonces, es adorar a Dios: el Dios único y verdadero.  El problema es que tenemos una tendencia humana de volver a la esclavitud.  Para los antiguos israelitas, esto significaba una falta de confianza en que Dios realmente los estaba guiando y les estaba proveyendo durante todos esos años que deambulaban por el desierto del Sinaí en busca de la Tierra Prometida.  E incluso después de que entraron y tomaron posesión de ella, todavía dudaron de Él e hicieron pactos con sus vecinos poderosos y paganos y así adoraron a sus ídolos.  Pero en realidad las cosas no son muy diferentes hoy en día.  De la misma manera, a veces experimentamos una falta de confianza en Dios y, por lo tanto, convertimos algo que no es el Dios real en nuestro propio dios falso, y terminamos idolatrando realidades egoístas como nuestra propia voluntad.  De ahí la falta de confianza en que Dios nos enseñe el verdadero camino hacia la auténtica libertad y la felicidad duradera.  La verdadera libertad es libertad para servir: servir a Dios en nuestra adoración a Él y sólo a Él, y servirnos los unos a los otros compartiendo Su amor y bondad.

Este es el camino cristiano, que no es otra cosa que vivir el significado de nuestro bautismo.  Nos regocijamos esta noche con nuestros hermanos que se unirán a Cristo en este misterio, siendo sumergidos en las aguas salvadoras del bautismo para mostrar su muerte con él, y luego saliendo de la fuente bautismal para mostrar su unión con él en su Resurrección.  Y esto irá precedido de la renuncia al pecado y de la profesión de fe, significado mismo de vivir este compromiso bautismal.  Pero hay un detalle importante que recordar.

“¿Quién nos quitará la piedra de la entrada del sepulcro?” preguntaron las mujeres que fueron a ungir el cuerpo de Jesús.  La piedra era grande, nos dice San Marcos.  Demasiado grande para que la fuerza humana pudiera moverla.  Eso sólo podría lograrse mediante un acto de Dios, por la gracia de Dios.  La piedra selló la entrada a la tumba, y Dios la quitó para que las mujeres que vinieron a hacerLe un servicio pudieran ser las primeras en encontrarse con Cristo resucitado.

¿Qué pasa con la piedra que sella la entrada a nuestro propio corazón?  De la misma manera, sólo Dios puede mover eso para que podamos conocer la verdadera libertad de servirLe y así llegar al encuentro salvador con Su Hijo Resucitado.  Confiemos, entonces, en Él para hacer eso, confiemos en Él lo suficiente como para seguir Sus mandamientos, que no son más que instrucciones para vivir en libertad y verdadera felicidad.  Hagámoslo, para que se cumpla en nosotros lo que rezamos hace unos momentos después del canto gozoso del Gloria, cuando fueron tocadas por primera vez las campanas después de haber estado en silencio desde el canto del Gloria del Jueves Santo.

Que esta sea la oración que esta noche nos recuerde vivir cada día de nuestra vida: “Dios nuestro, que haces resplandecer esta noche con la gloria de la resurrección del Señor, aviva en tu Iglesia el espíritu de adopción filial, para que, renovados en cuerpo y alma, nos entreguemos fielmente a tu servicio”. Amén.

[1] Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection Vatican Secretariat of State (trans.) (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 160.

[2] Benedict XVI, Church, Ecumenism, and Politics (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 255.  Quoted in Benedict XVI on Freedom in Obedience to the Truth: A Key for the New Evangelization – Homiletic & Pastoral Review (hprweb.com).

[3] Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration Adrian J. Walker (trans.) (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 78.

[4] From the Fourth Century Apostolic Constitutions, quoted in The sacrament of baptism as a participation in the death of Christ – Homiletic & Pastoral Review (hprweb.com).

[5] Cf. Liturgy of the Hours, Thursday within the Octave of Easter, Office of Readings, second long reading.

[6] Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium Et Spes, n. 17.