Joy and Hope
February 7, 2009
Embrace a clear, hopeful vision of sexuality
During the recent Sundays we have been hearing from the sixth and seventh chapters of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In those chapters Paul plunges into the themes of sexuality and marriage.
Many may be uncomfortable with St. Paul’s discussion of sexuality. It always seems a little too explicit. When he talks about sex and marriage we may all get a little uneasy with the seemingly pejorative, patriarchal manner of his language that seems to subjugate women.
It is worthwhile to go back to these chapters and read the whole reflection so that you can understand the context for Paul’s reflection on human sexuality.
Return for a moment to the text of the first reading from the third Sunday of the year, Jan. 25 (I Cor. 7:29-31). Paul said to us then, “The time is running out.…the world in its present form is passing away.” He did not speak only about sexuality. He said, “From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world as not using it fully.”
Paul is focusing on the coming of the kingdom. He encourages a discipline or asceticism that is focused on preparing for the kingdom. Sexuality is part of this preparing for the kingdom. Paul’s language called for self-denial, but more importantly it calls for self-direction to the kingdom. Paul wanted the disciples to say “yes” to the kingdom.
A “yes” to the kingdom conditions how we respond to everything else. Paul mentioned sexuality but he also spoke about welcomed or tragic events in our lives, what we choose to buy, how we choose to use the goods of creation. All of the world can help or hinder us in our preparation for the kingdom. It is from this perspective that Paul began a more careful consideration of sexuality.
What is clear from this chapter of Paul’s letter is that the good of sexuality should be at the service of the kingdom. For Paul, sexual intercourse is properly understood and appreciated in the context of marriage. In other letters, Paul speaks more favorably of marriage, using it as a metaphor for Christ’s relationship to the church. He even speaks of a mutual submission between the man and the woman as one should submit to Christ.
For the argument that Paul is making in his letter to the Corinthians, he also speaks of the good of celibacy because of his concern for the coming of the kingdom. He clearly sees this as a sign of anticipation for the coming of the kingdom. For as good as married sexual love is, we can all look with longing for something better in the kingdom.
Celibacy lived out joyfully is a vibrant sign of this eschatological longing. Further along in chapter seven Paul mentions that not everyone is called to this. It is a gift, a grace. For what Paul wants to talk about, that time is running out, and celibacy is a positive sign of the kingdom to come.
Paul goes on to encourage people to get married if they do not have this grace. He does not see sexuality or sexual desire as evil. In the context of marriage it can be a powerful metaphor. It becomes a sacrament, an epiphany of God’s love.
As previously mentioned, Paul also sees marriage revealing the great love that Christ has for the church (Eph. 5.21-33). So both celibacy and marriage are complementary signs of the one kingdom for which we should all aspire. For the Christian, both celibacy and marriage should serve to bring one closer to that kingdom.
In all this, we see that for Paul all things, including sexuality, must prepare us for the coming of the kingdom. Pope Benedict XVI continues this discussion in his very contemporary conversation about the nature of love in his first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est.” The first part of the encyclical is a candid, open discussion about eros — sexual love — and agape — self-surrendering, sacrificial love. He does not present them as adversarial. He sees them as complementary.
The Holy Father said: “It is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: It is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. Only when both dimensions are truly united, does man attain his full stature. Only thus is love — eros — able to mature and attain its authentic grandeur.” (DCE, no. 5)
He continues later on, “True, eros — human desire — tends to rise ‘in ecstasy’ towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.” (DCE, no. 5)
This path is the path of chastity. All human desire — even sexual desire — can prepare us for the coming of the kingdom when we desire first to seek the kingdom of God (Mt. 6.33). We are all called to love. We are all called to be loved. This can only happen when we choose to love in the manner that God has called us to live.
Sexuality, then, as part of our human nature, only dignifies and liberates us when we begin to love in harmony with God’s love and God’s wisdom for us. Chastity as a virtue is the path that brings us to that harmony with God’s wisdom and love. Chastity moves us beyond one’s desire to what God wills for each one of us. Chastity is love’s journey on the path of “ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.” Chastity is the understanding that it is not all about me or about us. We act always under God’s gaze. Desire tempered and tested by “renunciation, purification, and healing” can lead us to God’s design.
All of us have to embrace this clear, hopeful vision of sexuality at the service of the Kingdom of God. This is a challenging topic. The dominant culture has already set the terms and the context for understanding sex and human sexuality. But we hold the true treasure.
Paul’s candor and courage were stern words for the Corinthians of his time but they offered his listeners the road to their true dignity and freedom as the sons and daughters of God. Our own message about Christian chastity can be equally as unwelcomed, even more so in our time.
The Gospel message about God saving us, body and soul, still has the power to lift us to our true dignity. It has the vigor to free us from the demons of self-absorption, sexual addictions, and destructive patterns of self-abuse. The words of Paul remind us that we should not be ruled by fear or shame about the hopeful prophetic message that has been entrusted to us. Speak boldly. Speak prophetically. Let joy and hope be the tone of your message. Let us share Paul’s sense of urgency about this message: “For the world in its present form is passing away.” We are all going to see the King.