Obesity. Alcoholism. Depression. Just some of the symptoms of sick Britain, identified last week as the unhealthiest country in Europe. And so, the government wants to hike taxes to change our behaviour.
We love to think that we are free. Perhaps you get angry when the government sets its mind on curtailing our freedoms. I know I do, when they raise the price of beer to stop us from drinking as much of it. But I always know that actually, however expensive they make it, I’m still going to drink just as much. I’m not saying I’m addicted or anything, but it does raise the question: actually, how free am I, really, when it comes to drinking beer? My freedom is limited, I suppose, by how much money I have in my wallet to spend on the stuff, but if I get as far as four pints, that never seems to matter so much. I’m probably going to carry on, anyway. So in a way, maybe the limits that the government tries to set on my freedom, the external limits to my freedom, are a bit of a red herring. Actually, it’s the decision I’ve made on my own to have four pints that is going to limit my freedom and push me into having a fifth and a couple of whiskey chasers. By making choices, I limit my own freedom.
Part of the problem, I think, is confusing ‘freedom’ with ‘choice.’ The fact that we can make choices does not necessarily mean we have freedom, and in fact, many of the choices we make end up imprisoning us. We think we are free to choose what to eat, how much to drink, how much exercise to take, how much TV to watch, how much time to invest in our work – but the freedom is all too often just an illusion. Our continued choices end up as habits, even at worst addictions. So true freedom cannot just be a matter of choice.
Looking at it a different way, there are choices that we simply can’t make, but we don’t think of them as limits on our freedom. We cannot choose to grow wings or breathe underwater. A man cannot choose to give birth. A woman cannot give birth to an owl. But we don’t, unless we’re a bit mad, view these limitations of choice as restrictions of our freedom. So again, freedom cannot just be about choices.
So what is true freedom? Well, the Church has traditionally thought about this question by looking to Mary. It is Mary, after all, saying “yes” to God’s angel, “be it unto me according to Thy word,” who brought God into the world as the Christ child. And we say that Mary responded freely to God’s command: after all, what kind of God would He be if He forced her? What kind of “love” could God be if the love were not freely given and freely received? If Mary were not free in the matter, God would not be a lover, but a rapist.
That said, we have to be careful not to make Mary’s freedom simply a matter of choice – as though she might have said “no,” so that Christ would not have born and the world would not have been saved. We must not make the Gospel into a novel or a soap opera. It was part of God’s eternal plan that Christ must be born, the world must be saved. Mary had to be the mother of God. And there’s the rub. Somehow we have to reconcile the fact that God planned Christ’s birth and chose Mary, with the fact that Mary freely obeyed God’s command.
The traditional answer to this conundrum takes us back to the distinction between freedom and choice.
First, there is the matter of habits. Mary, formed by the community of the Jewish faith, a member of the race of Israel, was inculcated in good habits, habits of prayer and godly living. She was, as we all are, the product of her upbringing, in her case, upbringing within God’s chosen people.
Secondly, and because of this, Mary’s nature was to obey God. Just as we cannot choose to breathe underwater or fly, it was simply not in her nature to disobey God. But this is not a limit on her freedom, any more than our freedom is limited by our lack of gills or wings. Rather, her true freedom was to follow her true nature.
There’s a lot of talk today about ‘being yourself,’ and maybe there is something to it. What I don’t think it means for a Christian, though, is the sort of ‘being yourself’ in the sense of ‘take me as I am,’ ‘like me or lump me,’ which is basically just an excuse for rudeness. The problem with that sort of ‘being yourself’ is that it rests on a false understanding of what the ‘self’ really is. The Church teaches that we are made in the image of God; that our true self is naturally good and godly. We sin when we fall for the false freedom of choices, choices that pull us away from that good nature, away from our true selves. True freedom is found in following our true divine nature, being our true divine selves.
As the handmaiden or servant of the Lord, obeying His command, Mary was being totally authentic to herself and so totally free. But she was also being just as authentically herself as Mother of God. Many things may stand in the way, but the love of a mother for her child is something fundamentally natural, as is the love the child returns to the mother. I have read one theologian saying that as soon as a baby knows a mother’s love, the baby knows God. In that loving bond, there is complete authenticity – it is true love, and almost automatic, but surely no one would say it was ‘forced.’ It is naturally free. And that love is the model Mary, Mother of God, gives us for our natural, true and free relationship with God, through which we can be ourselves, Our true selves, as He made us to be.
So as we give thanks to God today for our mothers, let us remember the naturally free love that they have given us, that Mary gave Jesus, and Jesus gave us; and so seek to live our lives not by the false freedom of choices but going with God’s flow of self-giving love. For only when we are slaves to divine love will we be truly free.