12Aug 12 August. Friday, Week 19

Saints Jane Frances de Chantal, Attracta, and Muredach, optional memorials

1st Reading: Ezekiel 16:1-15

Israel is compared to a baby girl, neglected at birth but later espoused and loved by God

The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, make known to Jerusalem her abominations, and say, Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem: Your origin and your birth were in the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite, and your mother a Hittite. As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things for you out of compassion for you; but you were thrown out in the open field, for you were abhorred on the day you were born. I passed by you, and saw you flailing about in your blood. As you lay in your blood, I said to you, “Live! and grow up like a plant of the field.” You grew up and became tall and arrived at full womanhood; your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare.

I passed by you again and looked on you; you were at the age for love. I spread the edge of my cloak over you and covered your nakedness: I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine. Then I bathed you with water and washed off the blood from you, and anointed you with oil. I clothed you with embroidered cloth and with sandals of fine leather; I bound you in fine linen and covered you with rich fabric. I adorned you with ornaments: I put bracelets on your arms, a chain on your neck, a ring on your nose, earrings in your ears, and a beautiful crown upon your head.

You were adorned with gold and silver, while your clothing was of fine linen, rich fabric, and embroidered cloth. You had choice flour and honey and oil for food. You grew exceedingly beautiful, fit to be a queen. Your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, for it was perfect because of my splendour that I had bestowed on you, says the Lord God. But you trusted in your beauty, and played the whore because of your fame, and lavished your whorings on any passer-by.

Gospel: Matthew 19:3-12

Among the signs of the kingdom are marital fidelity and celibacy

Some Pharisees came to Jesus, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.” His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.


The challenge of constancy

Instead of seeing religion in terms of dominance and obedience, Israel’s relationship with Yahweh is described as a marriage bond. Israel is portrayed as cast-off from birth, a child unwanted and left to die, a mixture of Canaanites, Amorites and Hittites, echoing earlier expressions in the Torah, “a crowd of mixed ancestry” (Exod 12:38) or “riffraff” (Num 11:4). The Lord loved and espoused this unwanted child, despised by others. Yet after adorning His people with precious jewels and raising her to the dignity of a queen, they turned aside. Israel was fascinated by her own beauty and became a harlot for “every passer-by.” But God is committed to Israel, not just for a lifetime but for eternity. God adds, “I pardon you for all you have done.” Love such as this, divine, exceeding all measure, heroic in its fidelity and forgiveness, is overwhelming for us. It grants us joyful satisfaction and absolute security; we always have a home with God. We are even on a basis of loving equality like husband and wife. No longer are we children before God the Father, no longer vassals to an overlord, but like spouses to God. Prophecies like this are an important antidote to notions of multi-layered hierarchy, or a Church dominated by jurisdiction, sanction and law.

Jesus restates God’s original design for marriage: “a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and the two shall become as one.” The disciples recognize the heroic conditions which Jesus lays down for marriage and reply, “It is better not to marry.” Jesus does not back down but explicitly states that such fidelity is possible only for “those to whom it is given to do so.” Fidelity is a divine imperative within the heart of husband and wife, heroic in one sense, yet normal in another way. God’s grace of sacramental marriage, continuously motivating the spouses, transforms this great demand into routine daily affection and dedication. Not only does Jesus go beyond the tradition of Moses to God’s original ideal for marriage, but he also says that, for the sake of the kingdom, some people are called to celibacy. Some are steered into the single life by birth defects or by other causes; others by a free decision. Yet celibacy can be received and lived as a special grace, liberating one for fuller service to God and our fellow human beings, on the example of Jesus himself.

Discerning God’s will, in concrete situations

The Pharisees are often presented as testing Jesus. They were aware that his teaching often went much further than the Jewish law required, even, at times, to the point of undermining the Jewish law. On this occasion the Jewish leaders wanted to test how faithful Jesus was to the Jewish law on marriage. They suspected that Jesus’ teaching would go against what the Jewish law permitted in relation to marriage, viz. divorce in certain circumstances. Their suspicions were well founded. Jesus’ teaching on marriage was more radical than that of the Jewish law. He called on men and women to marry for life, and went back to the book of Genesis to support his teaching. We are all aware that many marriages do not last for life; relationships break down, and people go their separate ways. That is the reality. The gospels show that Jesus knew how to accept the reality of people’s lives; he engaged with people as they were. He relates to all of us in the concrete situation of our lives. Yet, he also had a vision, God’s vision, for human life, including married life. He proclaimed that vision while continuing to relate in a loving way to all who could not reach it, for whatever reason. That includes us all, because none of us lives up fully to the values Jesus proclaimed and lived. There will always be that two-fold aspect to Jesus’ relationship with us; he loves us where we are, but keeps calling us beyond where we are. [MH]

St Jane Frances de Chantal; Saint Attracta, virgin; Saint Muredach, bishop.

Jane Frances, Baroness of Chantal (1572-1641) married at the age of twenty but was left a widow at twenty-eight, with four children. Some years later, with the help of Saint Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva, she founded in Annecy the Congregation of the Visitation. Her sisters were noted for their outreach to the sick poor, in contrast to cloistered female religious. Chantal said, “What do you want me to do? I like sick people myself; I’m on their side.” Saints Attracta of Achonry (6th century) and Muredach of Killala (also 6th century) are Irish saints of whom little is known

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