July 8, 2018
On a certain Tuesday, Jesus announced to his Apostles that marriage after divorce was forbidden by God. The Apostles immediately responded that ‘a man who did not marry was better off, then’ (Mt 19). Jesus’ retort is graphic and frank: Some men can never have sex; some have that power taken away; some freely give it up for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
A generation later, Saint Paul, convinced that the Kingdom of God was going to come any minute, urged his readers to forget about marrying or not marrying and hold onto the ‘other-worldly’ hope for God’s Reign (ICor 7).
All the religions of the world urge and require some sort of sexual abstinence from their adherents on a more or less regular basis. Jesus’ recognition of a truly religiously-motivated virginal/celibate lifestyle is unique. It is as unique as is his insistence that divorce is utterly ineffective in God’s eyes.
This teaching on marriage and celibacy is not foreign to the rest of Jesus’ message. His Gospel was essentially that of John the Baptist before him and all of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament: God is King. Nothing and no one – not the best of creatures or the scariest of possibilities -- can thwart his will or harm those who have chosen his Kingdom as their dwelling place. Those who marry – and marry this particular individual -- because this is God’s will for them cannot experience any permanent harm, no matter the price that fidelity entails. Marriage becomes their way of living in and for the Kingdom of God. This is what the Church means when it calls Marriage a Sacrament: a truly human work (a sign) that is sustained by (of grace) and directed to God (who is its Author) – not to or by the bride and groom.
An individual choses a celibate life-style if and when he comes to the conviction that God has a role for him (or her) that does not include marriage. Because the role is unique to each individual who is so called, there is no sacrament involved; the celibate commitment may be a sign of the individual’s life from and to the Kingdom, but the human deed that embodies and motivates the celibacy is not instituted by God in the same way as marriage is.
But celibacy is not a lesser way of life in the Kingdom for all of its non-sacramental nature; nor is marriage
inferior to celibacy because of its more direct tie to the Kingdom. In fact, celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom exists in the Church as an echo of the ‘thy Kingdom come’ of our common prayer. And Marriage – inasmuch as it is a sacrament – challenges those who are celibate and those who are too self-involved to marry – to shake off their self-centered-ness in order to discover life as God has designed it to be – always from him and for others. A sacramental marriage and a committed celibacy, alike, set their practitioners apart from a world of egoists and godless heathens to be ‘like stars in the night sky’, calling their fellow humans to look up, to rejoice in a beauty that is not apparent unless one look up, and to seek that higher and more that is God’s Reign in the world.
Really and truly and celibately yours,