Homily for the Twenty-Second Sunday (August 31) by Fr. James Reidy:
Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross…Whoever lose his life for my sake will find it.
Dear Friends in Christ,
We see martyrs in these words of Jesus, those who take the cross and lose their lives for Him in the past and as now in our time in the persecutions perpetrated by Islam in Iraq and elsewhere. We also see ourselves in these words as taking up the cross and making the sacrifices we have to make in order to be faithful to the Lord each day in prayer, obedience, patience, and all the rest—there is much denying ourselves in this and in losing the sinful life we are prone to. In our reading from St. Paul today, we see one most particular way of carrying a cross and losing a life. It is when he says, “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice holy and pleasing to God” and then “Do not be conformed to this age.”
To offer our bodies to God means to be chaste, which in our language today means to offer our sexuality to God. To offer it is to control it so that it serves the purpose for which our Creator gave it. That might be an offering in the way of celibacy or virginity if that is God’s purpose for us, to forego marriage for the religious life or for the sake of serving God’s people in the priesthood. Otherwise in God’s plan, it is to offer sexuality to God for the purpose of married love and family.
It is a “living sacrifice,” St. Paul says, because in order to do this, we have to live in a sacrificial way, that is, by self-denial, by resisting what our fallen human nature is always pulling us toward—toward impurity which is the abuse of our sexuality. So Our Lord tells us about losing our life. That means losing the life that would go that sinful way rather than surrendering to His will in being chaste. This “living sacrifice” can seem like a martyrdom sometimes because it is losing a life that because of our fallen human nature we are so prone to.
So that’s the losing, but we do it with the assurance that “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” What life do we find? The one we truly want, our true life where we are at peace with God and our conscience and where we can be free to serve Him in the way of life He calls us to. It’s chastity for the sake of love; that is our principle. The Church is said to be against sex, to be so repressive. But the Church is all for sex in its true purpose of love in marriage and the bringing forth of new life. Chastity is not repressive; it is protective of a great and beautiful gift. And it means freedom. It frees us from vile habits and addictions like the addiction to pornography, frees us for love, and God, and heaven. The weight of chastity we bear, the saints say, is like the weight of feathers a bird carries—you wouldn’t want to free him up from all those feathers because then he couldn’t fly.
The cross of chastity is especially one for the young today, in this age that is awash with sex, when even the word chastity itself is hardly known; much less is the virtue held in any esteem. Impurity is now called being “sexually active,” and this is looked on as normal and all right so long as the proper precautions are taken. It must seem to us very apt to hear St. Paul in our reading today follow up his call to us to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” with these words: “Do not be conformed to this age”—our age. So it will be the cross of chastity for our young people, a saying no to all that is around them that is so blatantly contrary to purity and decency. And they will know that it is not a losing of anything but a false and unhappy kind of life and the finding and keeping of the life Jesus offers, the life of virtue, freedom, and real love. They know that it is chastity for something, for love and for marriage.
Then we have to consider chastity within marriage. This means two things. The first is the spouses being faithful in the marriage and making the sacrifices for love that this entails. And then chastity within marriage means being open to children. This is an offering of sexuality for the sake of love because it entails a total self-giving of the spouses and with that is a self-giving for the sake of new life. It is sexuality serving both the unitive purpose of marriage—the mutual love of the spouses—and the procreative purpose of this love. It is surely one plain meaning of “offering your bodies as a living sacrifice holy and pleasing to God” not to practice contraception which is a serious sin.
Any mention of this truth of marital chastity must include something about natural family planning. I quote the Catholic Catechism: “Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observations and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and [make for] authentic freedom.” Freedom again—God’s will means freedom for us in this and every aspect of our life.
Finally now, how do we achieve it, chastity for love? Not be ourselves. We must be always looking to Our Lord who said “without me you can do nothing.” So with Him and only with Him are we capable of this living sacrifice. He said, “He who abides in me and I in him, he is the one who bears much fruit. For without me you can do nothing.” How do we abide with Him and in Him? It is a matter of faithful prayer each day and receiving the Sacrament of Penance and the Holy Eucharist. It is prayer to our Blessed Mother, our “Mother Most Chaste” as we say in the litany. Jesus promised us that His “yoke is easy and His burden light”—even this of chastity, because He is always with us saying to us as He did to St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.” And with this virtue above all, we want to remember and rely on what St. Paul calls “the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe.”
Offering our bodies as a sacrifice holy and pleasing to God, taking up the cross of chastity, and losing a life, the unhappy life prone to sin, to find our real life in the love of God that leads to eternal life—we plead to God for this. We ask for the grace of chastity in each of our individual lives and in every marriage. We pray with St. Augustine who fought so hard to attain this virtue, that beautiful prayer of surrender and trust: “You have commanded chastity, Lord. Grant what you command and command what you will.”