Sunday, February 1, 2015
Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35; Mark 1:21-28
St. Paul’s words this morning,
from his First Letter to the Corinthians,
may not fall pleasingly upon our ears,
at least not the ears of those of us who are married.
While the unmarried are
“anxious about the things of the Lord,”
a married man or woman is
“anxious about the things of the world,”
seeking to please his or her husband or wife,
and thus is “divided”—
seemingly not fully committed.
It sort of makes us married folks
sound like second-class Christians.
And if you are a Catholic of a certain age
(you know who you are)
it may remind you of the days
when it was implied or often stated
that the true Christians
were the celibate priests and sisters
and that if you were serious about your faith,
if you had a “vocation” or “calling,”
you had better avoid the worldliness of marriage.
In Paul’s defense,
I would note that if we place this passage
in the context of his letter as a whole,
he is in fact defending marriage
against those Christians in Corinth who were arguing
that no Christian should be married,
that marriage and all that went with it—
managing households, owning servants, raising children—
was part of the old creation that was being swept away
by the new creation in Christ,
which would soon reach its consummation
in the return of Jesus to judge the living and the dead.
While Paul commends the fervor of these enthusiasts,
he tells them, a bit earlier in the letter,
that while he might “wish everyone to be as I am”—
that is, celibate—
“each has a particular gift from God,
one of one kind and one of another” (1 Cor. 7:7).
In other words,
celibacy is a divine gift and calling,
but so too is marriage.
Yet it is undeniable that while Paul
affirms the goodness of marriage,
he holds celibacy is special esteem.
And it is undeniable that in the tradition of the Church
the consecrated life of poverty, chastity, and obedience
and continues to have—
an indispensible role in the life of the Church.
But what exactly is that role?
What distinctive things do those who vow themselves
to a life of celibate chastity
bring to our common life in the Body of Christ?
Let me try to answer that question
from my perspective as a married person.
I don’t think, as was sometimes implied in ages past,
that those who undertake celibacy
necessarily achieve a surplus of holiness
that makes up for my lack of holiness,
a lack brought about by my married state.
I have known a fair number
of celibate men and women over the years:
some have seemed to me quite holy;
some were noticeably not.
But what they have done, all of them,
is to remind me,
by their very act of promising themselves to celibacy,
that the call of Jesus is a call to radical love,
a love that reaches into the roots of our being,
a love so radical that one might for its sake
renounce other perfectly legitimate forms of human love.
By responding to Jesus’ radical call in their lives
by promising themselves to a life of celibate chastity,
they have challenged me, in my own life,
to find a response
that is as radical
as the call I have received.
At least for me, it takes something as drastic,
something as strange,
something as shocking
as a promise of celibacy
to drive home just how radical
my own calling has been.
The writer Flannery O’Connor,
in explaining why her novels and short stories
often had such appalling plot twists,
noted, “to the hard of hearing you shout,
and for the almost blind
you draw large and startling figures.”
For me, celibacy is a large and startling figure
that pulls me up short,
that makes me ask myself,
“What do I do in my life
to respond to the love of Jesus,
the love that gave up everything for me—
even to the point of death on a cross?”
I think in our society as a whole
the life of celibate chastity
serves as a large and startling figure.
In a culture in which sex is a valuable commodity,
used for everything from selling products
to affirming our self worth,
the act of giving up something so valuable
seems shocking, unthinkable.
It is perhaps one of the few things
that you could tell someone about yourself
and elicit the response, “You’re what?”
Celibacy is a sign of contradiction
because it reminds us
that we do not live for this life alone,
but for the Kingdom of Jesus Christ,
and we live for that kingdom by clinging to God’s grace
and by that grace being transformed
into the likeness of Jesus.
This is an easy thing to forget,
and we need things that grab our attention,
things that startle and even shock us.
So we owe a debt of thanks
to our fellow members of Christ’s body
who have, by the consecration of their lives,
become living signs and reminders
of Christ’s call to radical love,
the love that opens its arms on the cross
to embrace me, and you, and all of God’s creation.