Often the 2nd reading on a Sunday is something of a Cinderella. But it’s hard not to notice today’s. It comes from ch. 7 of St Paul’s first Letter to the Christians of Corinth.
‘I would like to see you free from all worry’, he says. Yes indeed!
Then he talks about being unmarried or married. Well, that kind of question always interests us.
The customs surrounding marriage in St Paul’s time were in many respects different from those that prevail among us. Some marriages would have been arranged, for example. But St Paul, because he’s an Apostle and a faithful mouthpiece of Christ, has some things of lasting truth to say.
He takes it for granted that marriage is a good, natural thing. (He means, of course, marriage between a man and a woman – there is no other kind.) And a marriage between Christians, in his view, is a very good thing. He says elsewhere that it reflects the union of Christ and the Church. To use our language, it’s something sacramental; it’s a mystery of grace. It’s “in the Lord”. This means it’s a path to God. In all this, he was echoing Jesus.
And he echoes Jesus on another point as well. Jesus had opened up another path: that of being voluntarily single. ‘For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it’ (Mt 19:12). Paul was one who did. He was not married when the Lord called him on the way to Damascus, and in the wake of that encounter with Christ he chose to remain single.
Here it’s vital to be clear. St Paul expresses a preference for the way of singleness dedicated to God, the way of celibacy or virginity. He thinks it enables a Christian to give the Lord an undivided attention, something far harder for the married. It’s good for that reason. In itself, being alone and sterile would not be good. It’s good because of the relationship of love with the Lord it enables. And he is clear that this way can never be imposed. It can only be chosen freely. It is a gift from God which God is free to give or not. And marriage always remains a good, honourable thing. ‘I don’t want to put a halter round your necks’, he says.
And so the Church in the wake of Jesus and of Paul has always said these two things: marriage is good, and marriage in Christ is a sacrament, and a path of holiness. And at the same time, a singleness dedicated to God is good. Grace can fill both paths.
Let’s take this a little further. There was a book by the late Frank Sheed called, ‘What difference does Jesus make?’ It’s a very good question. In adolescence we wake up to our sexuality. And in an often confused sort of way, we begin to wonder what we’re meant to do with it, with all this energy and potential. And if we’re Christians and helped by good people, please God we’ll ask ourselves where Christ comes into all of this. ‘What difference does Jesus make’ to us as sexual beings? He does make a difference. He makes a difference – by his teaching and by the power of his grace, just like today’s Gospel. He enables us to live our sexuality in a way worthy of our humanity, in a way that doesn’t reduce us to chaos and cause chaos in the lives of others. He turns what so easily runs to chaos into ‘cosmos’, something ordered and beautiful. He enables men to be men and women to be women and all of us human beings worthy of the name. loving and life-giving. And this both in marriage and in singleness. The difference Jesus makes is something rarely mentioned. It’s chastity. I’m surprised how little it has been mentioned in preparation for the Synod, for example. We seem to have despaired of it – perhaps because we’ve only half understood it. By chastity, I don’t mean and nor does the Church, simply abstinence. Chastity includes that, but is much more than that. Chastity doesn’t mean ‘no’ to sex; it means ‘yes’ to God’s plan for our sexuality. It’s the grace and the virtue thanks to which we can live our sexuality in a truly human way. Integrate it, as people often say, rather than be disintegrated by it. This entails, certainly, the long hard work of mastering ourselves. But that’s not to turn us into dry sticks. We control ourselves so as to give ourselves. The goal is love from a pure heart. Chastity cleans the inner eye. We can begin to see the world not as a supermarket of potential pleasures, but as God’s creation. We can cherish and devote ourselves to others in a way that’s inwardly free, non-possessive and doesn’t turn others into mere objects of pleasure. Here’s the difference Jesus makes. ‘All the baptised are called to chastity’, says the Catechism. ‘Married people are called to live conjugal chastity’ – in faithfulness and mutual respect. ‘Others – the single – practise chastity in continence’ (abstinence).
We all know these things are difficult, and how easily we’re entangled and confused. And the Lord knows this too, and his mercy is always at hand. But we can say what the people in today’s Gospel say: ‘Here is a teaching that is new, and with authority behind it: he gives orders even to unclean spirits – even to the uncleanness in ourselves – and [it] obeys him.’ There is something very beautiful here, the touch of God. We may be single, we may be married. We may have same-sex attraction or not. But the Lord is here with his word and his power. He can open a way out of any cul-de-sac. Paul is right. This isn’t a halter round our necks. The chastity Jesus offers can free us all for God and for one another.
I pray we may open our hearts and lives to him.