“The Frightening Freedom of Being the Children of God”

Homily, Mass for the Celebration of the Lunar New Year
February 24, 2024; St. Mary’s Cathedral
Readings: Ex 12:1-5.14; Ps 104; 1 Jn 3:1-3; Mt 5:1-1


The new year is a time of new beginning. We look forward with hope to future possibilities and opportunities as we embark on a new year. The Mass we celebrate today to mark the beginning of this lunar new year also speaks to us of new beginnings, as experienced in the life of the people of God.


In our first reading we heard the account of the Passover, God coming to the rescue of His Chosen People to deliver them from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the land He had promised them. This was for them a new beginning, the beginning of living as a free people. As the story goes, however, they suddenly discovered that that freedom was too frightening. They were in an unknown desert: How were they going to find their way?; Where will they find food to eat?; Where will they find water to drink? They do not trust God to take care of them and so they want to go back to slavery in Egypt, where at least they were sure they would have something to eat.

In the famous film “The Ten Commandments,” there is a well-known scene in which Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the Law only to find the people in open rebellion: they thought Moses would not return from the mountaintop, and that God had abandoned them; they could not trust the God Who revealed Himself to them to save them, so they made for themselves their own false god, melting down gold to make a calf to which they bowed down in worship. They all broke out in revelry, and when Moses finds them upon his return he announces that he has the Law for them – to which their leader, Dathan, protests: “We will not live by your Commandments! We are free!” To which Moses then retorts: “There is no freedom without the Law!”

This will make perfect sense to the ancient biblical mind, because the biblical mind sees the concept of law not as we do – a set of rules and regulations invented by the human mind to help for the good ordering of society. Rather, in the ancient Jewish mind (and still today for devout Jews) the Law is the revelation of God’s will, instruction in His way, the teaching of His truth. It is not a burden but a delight, giving joy to the heart.


Pope St. John Paul II taught us a lot about freedom. With this biblical understanding, it is not surprising that he would put it in this way: there is no freedom without the truth. How different this is from the popular understanding of freedom today, which sees it merely as the faculty to do whatever one wants without any limitation and without having to bear any consequence for one’s actions. This is freedom unhinged from truth, which the saintly Pope warned us would become a force for evil, degenerating into license.1

Indeed, this is the way by which a society evolves into being one in which the ruling few wield their power, even arbitrarily, over the helpless masses. It undermines the virtue necessary to make a society flourish, and the individuals in it to flourish. That flourishing can only come about when all understand and live by the definition that John Paul gave to freedom, so contrasting to the way we popularly think of it today. “Freedom,” he famously said, “consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”2 And, I would add, doing it.

We certainly see all around us the consequences of not doing it: it eventually leads to the deprivation of the right to do what we ought. We see this all over the globe, certainly in China but in many other places as well, and in some ways even in our own country. Perhaps we are too much like our ancient ancestors in the Sinai desert: true freedom is frightening; we prefer the security of the old ways of doing things the way we want rather than living by the ethical restraints that the truth places on us and leads us to living a virtuous life.

Christian Understanding

It is a happy occasion that brings us together today, and we are happy to wish each other a happy new year and prosperity. But the light of faith teaches us that true prosperity is not simply material abundance but doing what we ought to do, thereby becoming the people God created us to be. That, as St. John tells us in his first letter, is to be the children of God. That is where we find the true freedom, in being children of God.

The coinciding of this new year celebration in the season of Lent is a valuable lesson to us. Lent, of course, is a time of self-denial: we deny ourselves food and other legitimate pleasures in order to train ourselves to be other-focused rather than thinking always of ourselves. Through prayer, penance and almsgiving we dispose ourselves to the grace of God that helps us to be trained to know and do what we ought, and so attain the true freedom of the children of God. And what do the children of God look like?

Our Lord gives us a picture of that in the opening words of his famous Sermon on the Mount: the Beatitudes. The children of God are poor in spirit, they mourn (that is, mourn their sins), they are meek, they hunger and thirst for righteousness, they are merciful and clean of heart, they seek peace and patiently bear persecution for doing what is right. And this is the true sign of authentic freedom: to suffer patiently persecution, insult and slander for the sake of the truth, that is, for the sake of Jesus himself.


At the beginning of this new year, so filled with hope and good will, let us, then, ask God for this grace: to live in the true freedom of being His children, finding delight in the life of the Beatitudes and bearing witness to the world of the way to peace, freedom, and the true prosperity that is the sharing of God’s love and generosity with others. And so, with this deeper, Christian understanding of what the beginning of a new year really means for us, I can wish you all: Kung Hei Fat Choy!

  1. https://www.ncregister.com/blog/john-paul-ii-no-freedom-without-truth. ↩︎
  2. Ibid. ↩︎