Homily for 20 January 2019

Here is my homily for the 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time on the Evangelical Counsels for married couples (and for all of us).

In the past few months, the Catholic Church has been hit hard with news regarding impropriety on the part of its priests and bishops, worldwide, nationwide, and even locally. My stomach turns to hear about some of the abuse that’s taken place, but I must admit that I’m more affected by cases regarding priests (and friends) who have failed in their promise of celibacy or have made other wrong choices regarding relationships or boundaries. I’m sure many of you are shaken by this too.

During those same months, I’ve been asked, “Wouldn’t it be better if priests were married?” As I thought about it, while priestly celibacy has faced some major attacks and we’ve heard about many grave failures and even horrific sins committed by priests and bishops, the institution of marriage has faced some challenges too.

Examples of infidelity and abuse aren’t limited to a celibate clergy – we find these sins elsewhere in society, including within marriage and the family – and our media is more than willing to share a constant stream of examples. Along with infidelity, “adultery of the heart” in the form of pornography has reached epidemic levels. In general, our country and our world have seen a pronounce shift in their approach to what marriage is, even redefining marriage institutionally in the last ten years – changes that would have been unheard-of a generation ago. And from a faith standpoint, the number of weddings according to the laws of the Church are down significantly – nationwide, between 2000 and 2012, Church weddings have dropped 40 percent, even though the number of Catholics has increased in the United States.

Again, I was asked, “Wouldn’t it be better if priests were married?”, but when faced with these challenges to marriage, we might be tempted to say, like Jesus’s disciples: “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry”, and there are many who believe this. Studies seem to indicate that divorce rates are going down in our country, but this is because more people are cohabitating without marriage, in part because of a fear of divorce and commitment (time.com/4575495/divorce-rate-nearly-40-year-low/).

I call this to mind, not to discourage us this morning, but to highlight the good news of our readings today. Despite the challenges marriage has faced and continues to face, today’s Gospel reminds us that marriage remains a profound blessing, especially when we invite Jesus Christ to supply, even to be, the choice wine of our vocation. This evening/morning, I’d like to consider the vocation of marriage in a way that most of the world can’t imagine, and in a way that many Christians never considered – marriage as a call to holiness that includes the evangelical counsels.

First, I need to define “evangelical counsels”. The words themselves mean “gospel guidance”, but they’ve come to mean the vows or promises made by nuns and other consecrated women and men – vows of poverty, chastity and obedience – in response to a world that struggles with consumerism, lust, and abuse of power. The counsels are what Saint John Paul the Second calls “a warning not to underestimate the wound of original sin…” (Vita Consecrata 87).

While nuns and friars, religious sister and brothers, take specific vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, I believe – and the Church will back me up –these counsels are for everyone, including married couples. Saint John Paul the Second says that:

All [the baptized] are called to live out … the chastity appropriate to their state of life, obedience to God and to the Church, and a reasonable detachment from material possessions: for all are called to holiness, which consists in the perfection of love. (Vita Consecrata 30)

Poverty, chastity, and obedience, as appropriate to the institution and Sacrament of Marriage, become a source of choice wine. Let me explain.

Poverty for a married couple is not about selling off everything. Rather, it’s a “poverty in spirit” which recognizes that Christ makes what is ordinary extr’ordinary – Jesus changed water into wine, and He wants to do extraordinary things in our lives too, if we’re humble enough to let Him. As John Paul the Second says, poverty in spirit is “a reasonable detachment from material possessions”. For a married couple, poverty in spirit allows the “his and hers” of individualism to become the “ours” of interdependence and a family community, helping the couple to overcome a self-reliance that leaves our hearts empty / and leading the couple to the choice wine that is Jesus Christ, who fills our empty hearts. (You may want to consider “Making Room for God: Decluttering and the Spiritual Life” by Mary Elizabeth Sperry for a Catholic spin on the Marie Kond­ō movement to declutter. For something a little deeper, you may want to consider “Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom” by Thomas Dubay, SM.  It is one of my favorite books.)

We might sum up chastity in marriage with the words of the headwaiter in our Gospel: “You have kept the good wine until now.” The sexual revolution told us lies like “chaste makes waste.” Christian chastity doesn’t settle for an inferior “wine” of using / that the world tries to “sell” us. Rather, chastity in marriage seeks to image the chaste love revealed in our first reading – the choice wine of God’s love for us. Isaiah says:

As a young man marries a virgin,

your Builder shall marry you;

and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride

so shall your God rejoice in you.

The promises and vows that the couple makes on their wedding day are a beautiful expression of what marital chastity is all about. A couple is asked:

Are you prepared … to love and honor each other for as long as you both shall live?

…affirming Christ’s call to permanence in marriage. The couple is then asked:

Are you prepared to accept children lovingly from God…?

…expressing the Christian understanding that marriage is ordered toward children and that they are beautiful gifts from God. The couple then exchanges the vows, the “promise to be faithful … in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love … and to honor … all the days of [their lives]”, allowing them to image God’s selfless fidelity demonstrated in the death of His Son, Jesus Christ, the source of our salvation. (Check out “For Your Marriage” for more information about living the counsel of chastity within marriage: www.foryourmarriage.org/married-life/sexuality-conjugal-love.)

I don’t think there are any better words to describe obedience than the words of Mary today: “Do whatever he tells you.” Within marriage, obedience includes a mutual gift of the will – our choosing power, our freedom. Saint Paul expresses this gift in the sometimes-shocking words:

Wives should be subordinate to their husbands,

and the even more shocking words:

Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her… (Ephesians 5:21, 25).

[even] taking the form of a slave [for her] (Phil 2:7).

The mutual obedience of husband and wife, “out of reverence for Christ” allows Christ to make choice wine within marriage, just as act of obedience was the basis of Christ’s first miracle. (See John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Women, “Mulieris Dignitatem” – especially paragraphs 10, 23 & 24 – for a thorough explanation of “mutual submission” as found in Ephesians 5:21-33).

Again, marriage is a great good, especially when a couple strives for holiness. But my promise of celibacy also shares in the choice wine of Jesus Christ when I am faithful to my promise of chastity, when I have a “reasonable detachment” from stuff, and when I am not only obedient, but when I also avoid a clericalism that flows from pride. Father Paul Scalia insightfully expresses how the recent abuse cases often reveal “not just unchastity but also a lavish lifestyle and abuse of power” (See “The Epiphany of Celibacy”: www.ncregister.com/daily-news/the-epiphany-of-celibacy). I too am called to the evangelical counsels. I believe all of us are called.

Jesus became poor, chaste and obedient so that we may be rich, fruitful and free. We become these only when we allow Christ to be our riches, our fruitfulness, and our freedom / through our own call to the counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. Let us welcome the choice wine that Jesus make through our call to holiness and our call to imitate He who was poor, chaste and obedient.