The reading from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is difficult to understand. It seems as if he is saying that celibacy is better than marriage. Yet we know that not everyone is called to celibacy. We also know that men and women who are called to celibacy are really no better than those who are called to marriage. So what are we to take away from this reading today?
As I mentioned last week, Sr. Irene Nowell looks at the readings of the Sunday lectionary through the responsorial psalm. Because we usually sing the responsorial, we may have the mistaken notion that it is somehow different than the other three readings. However, let us not forget that the psalms are also God’s Word. The difference lies in the fact that psalms are prayers as well as passages from Scripture.
The psalm for this Sunday is Psalm 95. In Jewish liturgy, this psalm was used much the same as our entrance song. It is a processional song and a call to worship. The first stanza begins with an insistent call to praise: Come, sing, cry out, and greet God! The reasons for praise follow. The Lord is above all gods, the God who formed and holds all creation.
The second stanza develops the first. The procession has reached the sanctuary. The call is to enter and worship this great God of creation
The third stanza is a warning against complacency. To be God’s people entails the responsibility of listening, of hearkening to God’s voice. Remembering how their ancestors failed to listen to God’s voice, they are warned: “Oh, that today you would hear God’s voice; do not harden your hearts.
The first reading from Deuteronomy warns us to listen wisely. God, out of consideration of our weakness, sends us prophets. The words of a true prophet are the words of God. Whoever refuses to listen to the prophets has hardened the heart against God. Care should be taken to discern the true prophet, and the people together must learn to listen well.
What the people hear in the Gospel is the authority of Jesus. The word of God flows through him with no hindrance. No moment of self-interest clouds Jesus’ message. The Law is clear from his mouth; the spirits of evil flee at the sound of his voice. Here is a prophet to whom we need to listen.
That brings us to the First Letter to the Corinthians. While his assertions about celibacy and marriage might cause us some distress, Paul’s real concern is not about our marital state. His concern is that we be free to listen. Any preoccupation, good as it is in itself, which distracts us from opening our hearts fully to God’s voice, is better avoided. Paul indicates that marriage may be such a distraction. Marriage, on the other hand, may also open the heart and make it easier to listen to God. Celibacy, on the other hand, can and sometimes does build a selfish wall against God’s call. Paul’s point is that nothing, however good in itself, should be allowed to hinder our listening hearts.
Those of you whose hair is as gray as mine will probably remember that before the Second Vatican Council we used to be told that as long as we got to Church before the “Offertory,” we had satisfied our obligation to attend Sunday Mass. The readings were proclaimed by the priest with his back turned to the congregation and in a language that we did not understand. One of the primary goals of the liturgical reform was to open the Scriptures up to a broader audience to make it easier for us to hear and understand the Word of God. The priests were told to set aside their “sermons.” Instead, they were charged with the responsibility to preach homilies about the Scriptures and, in so doing, make it easier for us to hearken to God’s Word. Oh, that today we would hear God’s voice and open our hearts to God’s message. Prayer is as much about listening as it is about singing and speaking.
The Liturgy of the Word which precedes the Liturgy of the Eucharist must be regarded on an equal footing with what comes after it. God is present to us in The Word just as surely as God is present in the consecrated Bread and Wine. Listening, hearkening to God’s Word, is essential for those who call themselves Christian. Married or celibate, lay or religious, young or old, God’s Word is an essential part of our prayer and worship.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M.