Friday, September 23, 2005

Marriage and Celibacy in Christ

[Here's the biblical primer on celibacy and virginity I mentioned. I wrote this largely because a friend of mine - yes, the same one that explained why unmarried pastors are better at "connecting" - has more than once disparaged celibacy, one time, in fact, calling it "a bunch of crap." This really wounded me. To scorn a gift so highly praised was pure scandal for me. So, I wrote this not only to see if I was overreacting about the gifts' biblical basis, but also, perhaps, to offer it to my buddy to help him see things in perspective. {Sorry for the weird apostrophe and quotation gaps; pasting from a Chinese Word document does that, I guess, but I have no time right now to fix each gap.} Tell me your thoughts, thanks! {Oh, and, no, despite the vigor of my primer, celibacy is not a foregone conclusion for me!}]

Why not marry? Jesus was single. St. Paul was single. Some, indeed many, of our Faith’s most dynamic and humbling saints were unmarried in order to walk every day with the one true “lover of their souls,” Jesus. Our Lady, Mary, as a prime example, remained a virgin her whole life [see NOTE 1].

Consider also St. Paul’s words and model: “I wish everyone to be as I am, but each has a particular gift from God.... It is a good thing for [the unmarried] to remain as they are, as I do, but if they cannot exercise self-control they should marry, for it is better to marry than to be on fire. ... If you marry, however, you do not sin, ... but such people will experience affliction in their earthly life, and I would like to spare you that. ... I should like you to be free of anxieties. An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy in both body and spirit. A married woman, on the other hand, is anxious about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. I am telling you this for your own benefit, not to impose a restraint on you, but for the sake of propriety and adherence to the Lord without distraction. ... So then, the who marries ... does well; the one who does not marry ... will do better.” (1 Cor 7:7-9, 28, 32-34, 38).

Most importantly, we must heed our Lord’s words and example: “Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it” (Mth 19:12). Ought to, He said. Jesus also said to Peter, who had “given up everything” to follow Him, “Amen, ... everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands” – in a word, all the connections and blessings of the married life – “for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life” (Mth 19:27, 28a, 29). Such a sacrifice is a living witness of the Kingdom to come, since, as Jesus said, “The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage ... [for] they are like angels” (Lk 20:34-36). Hence, in Revelation, we see the faithful followers of the Lamb wherever he goes described with glowing praise as virgins (Rev 14:4).

Obviously, such a long-term sacrifice of such a good thing is not easy; but its difficulty is precisely part of “carrying the cross” every day and, moreover, of sharing in Christ’s sufferings as He Himself was emptied (Greek, kenoō) of all claims to comfort and intimacy (cf. Lk 9:23; Rom 8:16-18; Php 2:5-9). Denying marriage for oneself is hardly an insult against marriage, since marriage is a supreme gift – a Sacrament – of God and a living witness of Christ’s marriage to His spotless Bride, the Church (cf. Eph 5:25ff). As St. John Chrysostom said (in the 4th century), “Whoever denigrates marriage also diminishes the glory of virginity. Whoever praises it makes virginity more admirable and resplendent. What appears good only in comparison with evil would not be truly good. The most excellent good is something even better than what is admitted to be good” (cf. _Catechism of the Catholic Church_, #1620).

However, to deny the goodness of celibacy is indeed to question the soundness of Jesus’ counsel of it – “ought to accept it” – as a means to attain perfection (cf. Mth 19:12, 21). As St. Francis de Sales said (in the 16th century), “[T]o despise aiming at Christian perfection is a great sin, and it is a still greater sin to despise the invitation by which the Lord calls us to it. ... It is true that a man may refrain from following the counsels [of celibacy, poverty, obedience, etc.] without sin because of an affection [or fear or need, etc.] ... that he has. ... But to proclaim that one does not wish to follow the counsels – not any of them – cannot be done without contempt of Him who gives them. Not to follow the counsel of virginity in order to marry is not to do wrong; but to marry because you regard marriage as a higher state than celibacy ... is great contempt either of the counselor or of the counsel” (cf. _Treatise on the Love of God_, Book 9, chapter 7).

So, why not marry? Not to denigrate marriage; not to fear sex; not to be a “loner”; but, simply, to become that much more like Jesus, and to have that much more of the “freedom of emptiness” in the service of our God and our neighbor.

[NOTE 1: Mary’s perpetual virginity is indicated in at least six ways. First, we catch a prophetic glimpse of her in Ezekiel when the Messiah’s entrance into the City is foretold; Mary was and is the perpetually closed “eastern gate” through which the glorious Lord, and He alone, passed for our salvation (cf. Ezk 43:1, 44:2).

Second, by bearing the Word of the New Covenant, the Staff of the redeemed Priesthood, and the true Bread from Heaven, Mary quite dramatically, and mystically, became the Ark of the New Covenant – which was not to be “tampered with” by even the most well-meaning outsiders (cf. Heb 9:4; 1 Chr 13:9-10 {with Num 4:5}; Jn 1:14, 6:30-33, 41).

Third, insofar as Jesus was the New Adam and reversed the Fall by obedience (cf. Rom 5:12ff), so too we see Mary as the New Eve, quite literally flesh of His flesh. Through her humble obedience (cf. Lk 1:28-30, 38), this New Eve gloriously reversed Eve’s shameful disobedience (cf. Rev 12:1-6, 13-17 with Gen 3:15-16). Hence, just as Adam and Eve became one flesh perpetually free from adultery, so too Jesus and Mary remained (and remain!) united in virginal purity by the total gift of themselves to each other, as “one flesh”: Jesus gave His life and death for Mary and all humans; Mary gave her womb, her very flesh, for the life of her Savior (cf. Lk 1:46-48).

Fourth, Mary’s baffled but faithful reply to the angel Gabriel’s prophecy about bearing a child suggests that she, like more than a few Jews in her day, had already taken a vow of celibacy. How can she bear a child, she asks, since she “does not know man” (Lk 1:34)? Mary obviously understood sex and fertility (hence the Hebraic “knowing a man”), and therefore wondered how she could have a baby in light of her vow of celibacy to God as His “lowly handmaiden” (cf. Lk 1:38, 48; interestingly, the Greek in 1:48 {tapeinōsis} echoes Jesus’ own unmarried, humiliated emptiness {cf. Ac 8:33} as the Suffering Servant whose “posterity” was cut off {cf. Isa 53:8, 10} and who – as we see fulfilled in Christ’s spiritual brotherhood with us – only “gave birth” to “descendants” by the faith He plants in us Christians {cf. Rev 12:13; Jn 3:5-6; Tit 3:4-7; etc.}). All such ideas clearly hearken back to the Hebrew concept of God’s beloved anawim: the poor, the crushed, the empty, the fruitless, the alone – and yet the faithful.).

Fifth, Mary’s maternal despair as she watched her only son die on the Cross (cf. Jn 19:26-27) also suggests she had no other children. It is plainly bizarre to imagine her supposed other children leaving her so utterly alone at Jesus’ death, and in Jesus’ era, even more outrageous to imagine Jesus entrusted her to a non-relative, St. John, if there were any other immediate kin to care for her (cf. 1 Tim 5:4, 8).

Sixth, the vast majority of Christians until well into the 18th century – including Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and Wesley – believed as a clear part of history and Christian Tradition that Mary always remained a virgin.]

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