Sunday, December 21, 2014

Advent Reflection III: Joy in Chastity

This Advent season, as we make "room in our hearts" for the coming of the Christ Child on December 25th, we continue our discussion on the importance and blessings of practicing chastity as followers of Christ who also happen to be childlovers. (For more on what Advent is, see this post.)

Chastity is often regarded as a labor, and it really is. It's ultimately a labor of love. But just because it's a labor doesn't mean it is devoid of joy. Like all virtues when we set ourselves out to practice them, chastity actually becomes a means toward a more fulfilling joy. Remember, chastity is a school not just of knowledge of God, but also of self. Indulging in or trying to avoid sexual desire completely is an escapist fantasy from God and from the self, but as I've come to learn, you won't come to truly know yourself until you begin to manage your desires. Christ reminds us very potently that God has not come to deprive of anything but to give us everything that is good for us. "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10). Can you honestly say that you're currently having life to the full? Are you maximizing your potential? Are you making full use of your talents and gifts? (I don't know if I am.) If not, remember, Christ isn't the one stopping you. Chastity is the road upon which you come to become the great thing God wants you to be, not a highway where He "robs" you of something.

Praise of God and remaining faithful to His law always carried with it a dual benefit throughout scripture. When David sought to honor God and build a temple for the Lord, God reminded him that He was not a god like the other nations had, who could be confined to a temple made with hands, for He had made the universe itself ("Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in?" (2nd Samuel 7:5b)). Nevertheless, even though there was nothing David could've done to add to God's honor, God was still honored by David's earnest desire to honor Him, and in return, though David was not to actually build the Temple, God honored David and established a "house" for him"The Lord also declares to you that the Lord will make a house for you" (2nd Samuel 7:11b). Because David had sought to honor the Lord's name, God honored David's name: "I will make you a great name, like the names of the great men who are on the earth" (2nd Samuel 7:9b). In this story, we learn that all it takes on our part is an earnest desire to honor God and His righteousness, and that it is God who is more than capable of returning the favor a hundredfold, and not just for us, but also for others because of us. And so Solomon (who actually built the Temple of the Lord) was also blessed because of David's desire to do so, as the gentile king Hiram noted: "Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, who made heaven and earth! He has given King David a wise son, endowed with intelligence and discernment, who will build a temple for the Lord and a palace for himself" (2nd Chronicles 2:12). Note here how the two things go hand and hand. You can not build a "palace" for yourself without building a Temple for the Lord, but you also can't build a true Temple for the Lord without also ending up building a palace for yourself, for it's God who allows you to build both.

But what does all this really mean in light of the advent of Christ? It means that the Temple in ancient Jerusalem was only a foreshadowing for us, for it could not really contain God, as King Solomon wisely remarked: "But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!" (1st Kings 8:27). And yet what we celebrate at Christmas IS God choosing by His own Goodness to "dwell among us," in taking on our flesh that we might be able to take on His, so that OUR bodies may become "temples" wherein the Holy Spirit can dwell. Now if the Holy Spirit dwells in such a temple as "you," St. Paul reminds us, how ought you conduct yourself in reverence of this fact! "Do you not know that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies" (1st Corinthians 6:20). The mystery of all of this was present when the Blessed Mother gave her fiat to God that she would bear the Christ Child within herself. God literally came to "dwell" within one of His creatures to show us how we are to give our fiat as Christians and also "bear God" within ourselves. Foreshadowed by the desire of King David, God is not requiring that we build a home for Him, but that we allow Him to come build a home within us, just as He did in the Blessed Mother. "Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head" (Matthew 8:20). He may have been born in someone else's stable, but He makes a permanent home for Himself in our hearts when we follow His example. 

So if the Temple of God in the Old Testament was given such high esteem even though it could not truly contain God, how much more so is the temple of the human body where God literally DOES choose to come to dwell, and therefore how much more it should be held in reverence! "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!" (1st Corinthians 6:15). How often then do we treat the body of Christ even less worthily than those who unknowingly crucified Him? We knowingly crucify Him all over again by sinning against our own bodies with unchaste living! And so, as St. Paul writes: "Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body" (1st Corinthians 6:18), and by that, not just one's own body, but the Body of Christ as well. But is it really enough just to "flee from sexual immorality?" Doesn't that sound like such a "sex-negative" idea? Doesn't it sound like God is trying to "break in and steal" something from us or take something away from us and leave us with nothing? Doesn't it sound like God is trying to "rob us" of something we think should be ours? Many think so, but it isn't true. As Christ and the whole of scripture tries to explain: "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10). But how can this be so? By expressing our sexuality in ways that allow us to have a fullfilling life, rather than waste it on our isolation. 

Remember, being chaste is an expression of sexuality, just not a "genital" one. There are many expressions of human sexuality and many ways this "sexual energy" we have can be used for the good of ourselves, others, and the glory of God. While the genital expression of sexuality (all forms of genital stimulation) is ordered toward procreation, other forms of it are ordered elsewhere. "Sexual immorality" then is nothing more than the disrespect showed toward that natural order of genital sexuality. All other forms of self-expression outside the genitals would not therefore be "immoral." The sexual energy within us doesn't have to be wasted (and in fact shouldn't be), but can and must be used in non-genital ways that bring glory to God and love toward one's neighbor. And that's a good thing, because it takes great energy or "grace" to do these acts of charity or creativity, and so we have a choice. We can either waste that energy on ourselves or jump into action and give it to others. Sexuality therefore becomes no longer a curse but a blessing and gift that we can give it to others. It becomes a "talent" of ours that we can go invest elsewhere to bring it back with interest to the One who gave it to us, as in the parable of the talents: "The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more" (Matthew 25:16). Then sexuality becomes something we must not try to "bury" or "hide away," or else we are in danger of the penalty imposed on the man who tried to bury his talent in the ground: "His master replied, 'You wicked and lazy servant!" (Matthew 25:26). We can use the sexual energies that we have and expend them on a healthy exercise regimen for example, or we can spend them in giving our time and resources to charity, perhaps children's charities or outreach programs in our community (for childlovers, this seems like it would be a worthy calling!). Where is the "no" from God in any of these things? Indeed, apart from what does us or others harm, God is telling us: "All things are yours..." (1st Corinthians 3:21). 
"Nathan replied to the king, "Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the Lord is with you" (2nd Samuel 7:3). 
If we do this, we will find that the virtue of chastity has brought into our lives a greater abundance than we would've ever had in a thousand lifetimes of merely pleasuring our bodies and indulging our instincts. In seeking to honor God and build his temple here within yourself, God also builds you a "palace." This is not a reward though, no more than the good servants were "rewarded" for their diligent handling of their master's talents: "His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'" (Matthew 25:23). If anything, it would seem like more work was required of the good servant after he had shown himself to be faithful, but being able to share in God's work is what we were made for, and why we can only share in His happiness by partaking in that work. There is no true happiness for us outside of being a co-worker with Christ for the love of neighbor and Glory of God. There's a reason why charity produces profound happiness whether we believe in God or not ("God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them" (1st John 4:16)), and it's because charity is God's work. All other work is vain and will pass away. Laboring for that which is fleeting is needless toil, as the Teacher explains: "And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person's envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind" (Ecclesiastes 4:4). On the contrary though, laboring for God is an eternity of meaningful work, as the psalmist declares: "It is vain for you to rise up early, To retire late, To eat the bread of painful labors; For He gives to His beloved even in his sleep" (Psalm 127:3). In this way Isaiah prophesies what the "New Heavens and New Earth" will be like: "They will not labor in vain..." (Isaiah 65:23). 

If despair is the result of toiling in vain, then the result of toiling for God ought to be a great inner joy, even in the midst of all sorrows. It is possible to be sorrowful but still hope in the Lord, but it is impossible to truly have hope and yet toil in vain. Chastity is a labor of love, but ultimately it bears fruit in the spirit, which is the essence of the "abundant life" Christ promises to give us. "All is vanity, all is meaningless!" (Ecclesiastes 1:2), and yet "God first loved us" (1st John 4:19). Now if that is not cause for "good tidings of GREAT joy" (Luke 2:10) then literally nothing is. 
"I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:16-19). 
"I am the Lord, your God, who grasp your right hand; It is I who say to you, “Fear not, I will help you...(Isaiah 41:13). 
What else do we do during Advent but ask for His help to renew our joy: 

"Emmanuel, Emmanuel, come and live in our midst. 
Emmanuel, Emmanuel, come make a home in our hearts."  

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