I thought today I’d tackle a fairly controversial issue, really a kind of constellation of controversial issues that fall neatly under one umbrella. My excuse for doing so is our second reading from St. Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians. Let me review some of what Paul said to the Christians living in the great pagan seaport city of Corinth.
“Brothers and sisters, the body is not for immorality, but for the Lord . . . Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? . . . Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you? . . . You are not your own . . . Therefore glorify God in your body.”
It sure doesn’t sound as if Paul were buying into the “I have a right to do whatever I want with my own body” philosophy current today and current among the pagans who vastly outnumbered the Christians of Corinth. Is this just an idiosyncrasy of Paul? Did Jesus have anything to say on this subject? How about this?
“From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness . . . and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23)
Or this, from the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” And a bit later in the same sermon: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
In a pagan and sexually permissive world, one of the things that stood out about Christianity from the beginning was what seemed to the pagans its bizarre, utterly unrealistic sexual morality. Ancient Greece and Rome were perfectly comfortable with adultery, fornication, polygamy, homosexuality, contraception, abortion and infanticide. Christians, while not always living up to their own lofty standards, opposed all of this and said that God created man and woman to be joined in a permanent, exclusive bond, expressed in a sexual act designed by God to symbolize and deepen this bond and to produce new human life, which was to be treated with reverence from beginning to end.
Up until less than a century ago, no Christian body disagreed with this belief. Right up to the present, it remains what the Catholic Church teaches. So you have the testimony of scripture, the historical witness of Christians versus pagans in every age and place, the unchanging teaching of the Church for two thousand years, and now you have the majority of Catholics who simply aren’t buying it anymore.
In the interest of truth in advertising, I want you to know that for however much time you have me here in Our Lady of the Snow, you’re stuck with a priest who does still buy it all, lock, stock, and barrel. That doesn’t mean I look down on you if you disagree, or that I’ll be mean or nasty or abusive if you pick and choose which teachings of the Church you accept. In fact, it’s much more likely that I’ll be abused for teaching what the Church teaches than that you’ll be abused for dissenting from Church teaching.
I read an article just the other day about a priest in Ireland who is publically supporting gay marriage and announced at Mass that he himself is gay. He received a standing ovation. Given the world we live in, I expect I’d be more likely to get such an ovation by announcing my intention to leave the priesthood and marry than I would by preaching any official teaching of the Church.
I’m not complaining. I know the world I’m living in and I’m used to it. What I’d like you to do, if you’re among the many who have sided with the world against the Church in one or another of these issues touching on sexual morality and the sanctity of human life, is ask yourself, given what you disagree with, can you defend and justify the Church teachings you still adhere to?
How do you feel about polygamy? What about co-habiting and sex before marriage? And at what age? 18, 16, 14? 14 is the age of consent in some European countries. And if that’s okay, and plenty of people seem to think it is, then what about an adult and a 14 year old, as long as everyone’s consenting?
You see, the Church’s teaching on these matters was never easy, but it was clear, consistent, and coherent. Sex is for marriage, between a man and a woman. Marriage is indissoluble. Mess with any of that, and everything begins to unravel. Ultimately the only standard is hormones and consent. That’s just about where we are.
I know I’m a dinosaur, but I’m in good company: St. Paul, Jesus, the Church. Again, I don’t dislike you and I won’t spurn you if you disagree with me. And last I looked, the Church can’t force you to do anything you don’t want to do or prevent you from doing anything you’d like to do. She proposes. She doesn’t impose. And she wants to be your friend, even if you disagree. Me too. I’m not sure anyone has a right to expect anything more than that.
Some of you may have heard me talk about Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., no relation to Eliot. He’s a very smart guy, a great teacher; he has a website (www.spitzercenter.org) and has written some really good books. In one of them, Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life, he recalls a childhood incident that shaped his entire future. He was twelve years old at the time, and it was Christmas. I’ll let Fr. Spitzer tell the story in his own words.
“One particular Christmas, when we had completed opening our presents and my siblings and I were going to Mass with my mother, I felt an unusually acute happiness that I couldn’t ignore, and so I said to my mother, ‘Mom, I’m feeling very happy, but I’m not sure why.’ She responded, ‘Well, it’s probably because you received all the presents you wanted.’ But I answered, ‘Mom, I did get all the presents I wanted, and I’m very grateful, but I don’t think that’s what’s making me happy. This is different.’
“She thought for a moment, then said, ‘Well, maybe you’re growing up and are thinking of things beyond presents. Maybe you’re happy because you’ve grown to appreciate your family and you’ve had an extra intense experience of them this Christmas.’ Now I was lucky to have had a really great family, but I said to my mom, ‘Uhhh, I really don’t think that’s it.’
“So my mother looked at me and thought about it some more and then, as if inspired, said, ‘Well, maybe it’s the joy of the whole communion of saints coursing through your veins, as they celebrate the birthday of Jesus.’ I have no idea why she said this, but somehow I knew she was right. ‘Yep,’ I said, ‘I think that’s why I’m so happy’”
Over the course of more than 38 years of priesthood, I’ve seen quite a few children who seemed especially touched by God and His grace, children like Fr. Spitzer when he was just twelve years old. He realized something all the world seems intent on missing, something even many of us Catholics are in danger of losing at our own terrible peril.
Yes, Christmas is about family and friends, presents and parties, music and merriment, but a lot of people don’t have any of these; and in heaven, the angels and saints are celebrating not these things, good as they are, but a birthday, the greatest, most important birthday in the history of the universe. They’re celebrating Jesus.
As a boy, Robert Spitzer was given the privilege of participating in some small earthly way in the joy of that celebration. Some of that joy coursed through his veins, and he knew that there was something more than presents, or even family and friends. There was Jesus and His saints and the joy they shared and were willing to share with us. It’s a joy available to the poorest of the poor, the sickest of the sick, the loneliest of the lonely. It’s a hint of what’s in store for us for all eternity, unless we give our hearts over to lesser things.
Go home tonight, my brothers and sisters; enjoy your presents if you have them; enjoy your family if you have any. They’re gifts from God. But don’t forget His greatest gift. Don’t miss the chance to let the joy of the angels and saints in heaven course through your veins. Remember what it is that they are celebrating this day.
Happy Birthday Jesus! May He bless and keep us all.
Two great figures dominate the season of Advent: John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary. John, about whom Jesus said that no man greater had ever been born of woman was sent from God to prepare the way of the Lord. Mary was chosen by God to give birth to and nurture the Savior of the world. John, we might say, was the way-maker, Mary the God-bearer; and, in fact, so she’s known among our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters. Their favorite name for Mary is Theotokos, Greek for God-bearer.
Between them, John and Mary exemplify and model the essential qualities of a true follower of Christ. Each of us is called to prepare the way of the Lord in ourselves, so that, as John said, he Christ, might increase and we decrease, in other words, so that he may continue to grow in us. In the end we want to be able to say with St. Paul, “Not I, but Christ lives in me.”
Beyond this, we’re not only called to prepare the way of the Lord in ourselves but in others too. For our entering into the lives of others, in whatever way that may happen, intimately or casually, it should be easier for them to believe, to hope, and to love. At the very least, it shouldn’t be harder for them to believe, hope and love because of our influence in their lives. What John Paul II once wrote of priests is true of us all. We’re to build bridge not walls. We, like John the Baptist, are called to prepare the way of the Lord, to be way-makers.
We’re also called, like Mary, to be God-bearers, not as she was, obviously, but truly nonetheless. We are temples of the Holy Spirit. God almighty dwells in us. What an immense blessing! What high dignity! What awesome responsibility! Nine-tenths of what the world is selling us nowadays would have us believe we’re nothing more than slightly smarter than average animals, whose chief goals should be pleasure, comfort, and consumption. It’s a vision of life as a spa.
The Bible says NO. The Church says NO. We’re children of God. We’re God-bearers. We have an exalted calling and a sublime destiny. We’re made for greatness, not as the world defines it, as God defines it. We’re God-bearers, called to deport ourselves as such, to bring God to others, to share his riches, to live as best we can a Godly life now so that we’ll live with God forever. That’s what we’re made for.
He’s gone home to God now, but I had a friend, a Hungarian Benedictine priest, who was a world-class genius. Fr. Stanley Jaki had doctorates in theology and nuclear physics, spoke seven languages, and wrote about seventy books, many translated into other languages, including Chinese. He used to say that the West worshiped five false gods, each beginning with the letter “s”: sports, sex, smiles, stars (as in movie stars), and science. Attach any one of these to just about anything, he’d say, and you can sell it to almost anyone. Mind you, he was a scientist, but he knew science’s limits. He knew neither it nor any of the other false gods had anything at all to say about the meaning and purpose of life.
John the Baptist and Mary do: We are here to prepare the way of the Lord. We are here to be God-bearers. Let’s not sell ourselves short. We are called to great things. We are called to be way-makers. We are called to be God-bearers.