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Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B

Obedience is not a popular word today. We are sold instead the dogma of self-will, the do-as-you-please philosophy. And yet that dogma is an illusion. All you need do is get caught on a speeding camera and you will get a hefty fine for disobeying the rules. All you need do is drive on the wrong side of the road and you will be hauled before a judge. For all that we claim and proclaim unfettered freedom, the reality is other.

The same is true with respect to our bodies. Many make their body the symbol of their freedom. But if you indulge in too much alcohol, your body will hold you to account. If through sheer self-will you bring about an imbalance of chemicals in your body, you will pay the price.

In other words, there are certain things we must obey because reality itself says so. They are givens and we cannot deny them or disobey them unless we want trouble. The greatest reality that is given to us is God himself. He precedes all other realities. Indeed, there would be no other reality without him. To deny or to disobey God is therefore not only very foolish but causes the greatest damage we can do to ourselves and to others. God is the first to know that. He created us and so knows what we need to do to attain our fullest potential as human beings.

Here was the tragedy of original sin. It essentially denied the reality of God and of man. It demoted God, as it were, and promoted man to God’s place. It was an inversion of the truth and so a denial of it, a lie. Disobedience to the truth introduced real trouble. In psychology, they say that a person who cannot accept reality suffers from psychosis. Original sin is the origin of psychosis, and every act of disobedience to the truth is a form of moral psychosis, a denial of reality.

God determined to cure us. In the first reading, he promises through Jeremiah that he will once again write his law deep in the human heart. This is the promise to restore that sense of reality ripped out of our hearts by original sin. In order for that promise to be fulfilled, however, a human being had to be found who would willingly reverse what Adam did. If we can characterize Adam’s sin as disobedience, then what this human being would have to do would be to obey. When this act of obedience was achieved, it would restore once more into the human heart the law of God. The law of God here does not just mean the Ten Commandments. It means the person of the Holy Spirit who makes known to us in our deepest selves the mind and the will of God.

The human being in question is of course the New Adam, the Second Adam, Jesus Christ. And it’s clear from both our second reading and Gospel today that Jesus understood his entire mission to be one great act of obedience to the Father. We know that in his humanity he struggled with the divine will, as witnessed in Gethsemane, “Father let this chalice pass me by.” We know he nonetheless surrendered to that divine will, “yet not my will, but thine be done.” In the Gospel today, he says it differently, “Now my soul is troubled. What shall I say: Father, save me from this hour? But it was for this very reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” In the second reading, we get a sense of the deeply human and emotional cost of this struggle in Jesus, “During his life on earth, Christ offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears, to the one who had the power to save him out of death, and he submitted so humbly that his prayer was heard.”

As we know, it was then Christ’s death which perfected his act of obedience because he knew that, through it, the Holy Spirit would again be poured out and restored to the hearts of any who believed in him.

Obedience to God is the royal road to peace of heart. In letting go of self-will we allow the Spirit to teach and guide us in the ways which give a profound sense of order and direction to our lives. Obedience enables us to know reality, true reality. It cleanses us of the psychosis of sin which tantalises us with attractive, but ultimately deadly, illusion. Obedience helps us live for Another; it draws us out of the all too limiting and limited confines of our self-invented projects. Obedience liberates us from the anguish of having to invent for ourselves the meaning of life, what is right and wrong, the meaning of death, of love and of suffering – because obedience makes us open to receive all these from the God who made us.

Obedience to God is not the suffocation of personal freedom but the path to its fullest development because in God freedom encounters the greatest possible object of its desire. Obedience to God opens up for me the understanding of my path in life, be it to choose one when I am young, or be it to strengthen and consolidate the one I have chosen when I am older.

Obedience to God generates joy because, as I obey, I discover the depths of his love and care for me and the gladness of knowing that the one who created me walks with me and leads me to eternal happiness. Obedience to God brings a sense of unity to my life and frees me from the temptations of regret and remorse, or even anger that my life is passing. Why? Because in obedience to God I realise that everything about me has been foreseen by his Providence and that my very death will be in his hands.

Obedience to God, precisely because it leads me to a profound serenity and joy in my life, will have immeasurable effects on the lives of those around me. It will make me a living witness that will attract others to desire to know the mystery of truth and love which makes me so gloriously human. Jesus himself says that, when he is lifted up from the earth, he will draw all men to himself. Anyone who imitates Jesus in his obedience to the Father will likewise draw others to Him through themselves.

Obedience costs. Of course it does. But what it gains far surpasses the loss that it incurs. Hence the mysterious words of Jesus, “Anyone who loves his life loses it; anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for the eternal life.” If we cling to lesser things, to our own small-minded notions of ourselves, to our own ephemeral projects, we are preferring a few drops of water to the ocean. But if we let them go in obedience to the call of the God who loved us to the point of death, we will inherit the eternal ocean of divine life and beauty and thus the truest fulfilment of our own poverty.

God is first. God is first. God is first. With God we have all. Without him we have and, alas, will become, nothing. Let us choose God, then, and we will find our true selves and the true selves of all others who have likewise chosen him through faithful obedience. Plant deep within us, Lord, the Holy Spirit of obedience that Christ Your Son may become for us the source of eternal salvation.