None of us can claim to be immune to the workings of our own conscience.
The bloody death of John the Baptist is at the heart of today’s Gospel. In fact, we read this account because today’s liturgy is precisely the memorial of the Baptist’s martyrdom.
Just thinking about his death would be enough to evangelize us, but I would like us to focus our attention on Herod’s strange attitude toward him:
“John had said to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ Herodias harbored a grudge against him and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so. Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody. When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him.”
A man like Herod feels fascinated by a man like John. All the good news in this Gospel passage thus seems to focus on this seemingly minor detail: You can be someone like Herod but you cannot be indifferent to the Truth and the one who speaks it.
What this means is that despite bad choices, contradictory experiences, and the belief that we are smarter than others, we still remain sensitive to what is objectively true.
We know that in the end this will not save John’s life, but it tells us that none of us can claim to be immune to the workings of our own conscience. We can act against it or in agreement with it, certainly, but we cannot say that we do not have a conscience.
And this is precisely why Herod is infinitely responsible for what he does, and with him, each of us. We cannot continue to blame all on the conditions of which our lives are made: Each of us must admit that we have a conscience, and that despite all the rest, it tells us something. We must decide, however, what to do with what it tells us.
The Gospel reading gives us a pretty definite answer: we want to get to the wedding banquet, which is the kingdom of God that Jesus, in his incarnation, has brought to earth. And this involves going through a narrow door that will only be open for a limited time— as we heard in last week’s Gospel. But according to this week’s lesson, entering in isn’t the final thing: it’s also the way that we enter.
Fast forward to the epistle to the Hebrews. Having brought heaven to earth, according to Hebrews, the incarnate Son then returned to heaven, where, in his flesh, there is now a place for us in the presence of God. That is the main doctrinal point of Hebrews.
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel (Heb. 12:22-24).
This breathtaking scene is contrasted with another: the side of Mount Sinai where Israel received the Law in fire, darkness, and gloom. If the one was a cause of trembling and awe, how much more the other? If the manifestation of God was terrible on earth, how much more the splendor of the temple in heaven?
This is followed by a warning: do not refuse him who is speaking. The warning hearkens back to the earlier refrain in Hebrews centered on the words of Psalm 95: “Today, when you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” The alternative is to listen, to accept, to respond and receive, and then, in verse 28, to “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.”
The contrast here, between the earthly temple and the heavenly temple, contains a whole further set of contrasts: between the endlessly repeated sacrifices of the old covenant and the one all-sufficient sacrifice of the Cross; between the dietary restrictions of the law that, in the words of Hebrews 13, “do not benefit their adherents,” and the new spiritual food which is the grace of God. In all these cases, there is a definite preference for the latter: the old has given way to the new.
Now, to some readers, the new altar of sacrifice is not an actual altar, but just the human heart. And this is how many modern Christians would read the call in Hebrews 12 to “acceptable worship.” It’s funny how “acceptable” worship seem to mean, for these modern people, exactly the kind of worship that modern people seem to like—which is to say, none at all. Or, at most, “acceptable worship” means worship in our heads. It means thinking pious thoughts and feeling pious feelings. It means finding “meaning” in things, which seems to be a popular concept among the aging devotees of the 1960s’ revolution. It certainly doesn’t mean going somewhere.
But Hebrews wants us to go somewhere: to the “city of the living God.” And if this seems like a spiritual version of meaningfulness—something that we could do just as well seated in our favorite chair at home or at the beach—that is because we have substituted a modern version of “spirituality” for the spirituality of Hebrews.
In Hebrews, the contrast is, indeed, between things “made with hands,” like the old temple and its sacrifices, and things that are eternal and unshakeable. But to say that our goal is spiritual does not mean that our goal is to fly into the sky with our own thoughts. Instead, it means, very specifically, that the new and everlasting way to the kingdom of God, the biblical way that Hebrews prescribes, is the body and blood of Jesus Christ (10:19-20).
We are going somewhere. We are moving toward heaven. We are going to the heavenly altar, in the heavenly temple, in the heavenly Jerusalem. But we are also already there. This altar is the heavenly altar, and when we “lift up our hearts” we lift them up not just to pious reflection but to the eternal throne of grace, which is accessible through the blood of Jesus.
Our destination is the kingdom of God; it is Jesus. And so, our destination is also where we are, because we have found him here in his Body the Church. To practice “acceptable worship” means rejecting the dilemma between an earthly altar and a spiritualized altar. There is one altar, and one sacrifice, and it is here, where the spiritual flesh of Jesus unites heaven and earth. Our goal is not to find the altar’s disembodied “meaning,” but to approach it on our knees.
With awe and gratitude, then, let us approach the city and the altar of God, knowing that, in the flesh of Jesus, we have true worship and have been given full access to “a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” Amen.
In reality, I was hurting badly, forcing a cavalier attitude while stifling the natural feelings of remorse from my many wrong turns.
This was especially true in the realm of romantic encounters. As I lived out the recommendations of the sexual revolution—free love and so on—I found that the hype fell far short of the reality. As it turned out, no, I couldn’t have casual sexual experiences and find lasting happiness. No, I couldn’t treat myself or others in a utilitarian sense and feel fulfilled. No, I couldn’t pretend forever that sex and procreation could be separated. It was all a lie, which I furthered along by lying to myself. It was—I was—a mess, whether or not I could admit to my regret and remorse about the whole thing.
Former Playboy columnist and writer Bridget Phetasy wrote in a recent blog post about the failures of the sexual revolution in her own life. She came to a similar conclusion as mine above: she had been lied to. Being promiscuous didn’t bring her happiness, and what hurt most in the process of living out her own sexual revolution was that she had lied to herself. She did not feel good about the entire thing, and she was not okay.
Humans are ordered to the good, and casual sex and whatever else the sexual revolution promotes are ordered away from it. These things seek false love and self-satisfaction at the expense of true love—love, as defined by St. Thomas Aquinas, meaning the willing the good, of the other and of ourselves, which ought to lead us to God and eventually the beatific vision. As such, disordered sexual attitudes and actions clash with the good with regard to our sexuality as God has defined it, being “realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and woman commit themselves totally to one another until death” (CCC 2361). This includes sacramental marriage, fidelity, chastity, charity—all things that are good for us and for our relationship with God, and none of which has much place in the sexual climate of today.
This is why Phetasy came to her “I’m not okay” conclusion. Her sexual behaviors and beliefs were not ordered to the good that her soul sought.
Truth be told, none of us is okay, regardless of the state of our sexuality. That is a truth told way back in the Book of Genesis, starting with the fruit of which Adam and Eve ate: the first sin, and the first human experience of regret. Through the ages, humans have inherited Adam’s and Eve’s proclivity to sin. We can’t fully shake it. But in the verses that follow, we read of our loving God’s plan to save us from the mess of this fallen world: our Messiah.
This connection among sin, contrition, and Jesus is paramount to the story of our salvation. We will sin. Unless we’re sociopaths, we will feel a sense of regret, and with a proper understanding of our natures, the love of God, and the Catholic sacraments, we can express our contrition and receive the beautiful gift of Christ’s forgiveness. It is a cycle of sin and contrition that can be broken and healed only through Christ. Thus, we are not stuck in our regrets.
For Phetasy, however, healing seems to have come from developing a sense of self-love and a healthy relationship with her current spouse. Now she has advice for her young daughter when the time comes for the latter to navigate the current culture’s upside-down sexual mores: “It’s not about waiting until you’re in love to have sex; it’s about making sure that first, you love yourself. . . . Every woman should feel this way: sleeping with me is a privilege. And you have to be worthy.”
That may sound empowering at first glance, but let us be honest: the love we have for ourselves will always fall far short of the love God has for us. Our feelings and thoughts change. God and his love for us never do. Love for ourselves as a beloved creation of God is far more fulfilling than trying to drum up and maintain reasons to “love me for me.”
So what are we to do? How do we process our own regrets in the wake of the faulty Sexual Revolution? How do we counsel loved ones when they have come to realize their wrong turns? Phetasy offers a nugget here and there of partial truth. “Sex,” she writes, “can’t be liberated from intimacy and a meaningful relationship.” The Catholic Church would agree . . . to a point: “in marriage the physical intimacy of the spouses becomes a sign and pledge of spiritual communion” (CCC 2360). Intimacy and meaningfulness are embedded in the sacrament of marriage and the marital act. It is in this sacred space that a husband and wife can enjoy themselves, free of regret.
But mostly, Phetasy gets it dead wrong: “I regret being a slut. I regret it because I regret that those men can say they slept with me.” Her regret is wrapped up in being a sexual partner to someone unworthy of her rather than regretting what ought to be in the forefront: that she didn’t believe in God’s love for her. But it’s with a proper understanding of God’s love that we can benefit through our behavior from the lessons God has taught us, through the Catholic Church, all these many years.
Regret, remorse, humble contrition . . . these are all good things. They alert us to when we’ve done something that harms our relationship with God and neighbor and move us to seek forgiveness in Jesus. As in the Mass, so in this area of life: we start with the Confiteor, and we conclude with thanksgiving for our loving—and forgiving—God.
This is where our focus ought to be, whether in working through the regrets of our own past or helping others work through theirs. It is in God’s love for us—and here’s the important part: in our love for God—that we can properly accept, understand, and work through our remorse. That is the only antidote to our sexually misled culture, its many wrong turns, and a plethora of well-meaning but woefully inadequate advice.