“St. Agnes, Patron Saint of the New Chapter in Building a Culture of Life”
Homily at the Mass for the Walk for Life Westcoast
Memorial of St. Agnes
January 21, 2023
Readings: 1 Cor 1:26-31; Mt 25:1-13
When the idea first came to me to commission a new Mass of sacred music for this Mass in our Cathedral before the annual Walk for Life West Coast, I foresaw it as marking the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the infamous Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision of January 22, 1973.
Of course, I had not intended this as the kind of happy anniversary that one celebrates with great festivity, such as a wedding anniversary or an anniversary of ordination or religious profession. Rather, I had foreseen it in the same sense of other anniversaries of great tragedies in history, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor or the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
New and Constant Challenges
Little did I know, nor anyone else for that matter, that there actually would be something happy to celebrate. What so many of us dreamed of, prayed for and worked hard for during the course of half a century came to pass: the overturning of this monstrous decision. While the now historic Dobbs decision is a great step forward in building a culture of life in our society, in another sense it adds new and even greater challenges, especially here in our own state of California which promises to be a so-called “sanctuary state” for abortion. Surely there could be no greater oxymoron, for “sanctuary” is about protecting human life and human rights, not taking them away!
You’ve heard the news stories just as I have. Even the very labels they use show their bias: we are “anti-abortion” while they are “pro-choice” or “for abortion rights.” Of course, they fail to recognize that if you stand for something, you will be opposed to the opposite. People can be labeled according to what they are for, or what they are against. You cannot be for something without being against its opposite, just as, by the same token, you cannot be against something without being for its opposite.
So, yes, we are opposed to the killing of innocent human life in all circumstances, which is why we are pro-life, just as they are opposed to laws that prohibit the killing of innocent human life. And notice how we are labeled as a small minority way out of the mainstream. But that puts us in good company: such were the abolitionists in mid-nineteenth century America and likewise the protagonists of civil rights in the Jim Crow South.
To advocate for what is just and true in a society which stands in opposition to it will always entail suffering and some kind of persecution. Enter our saint for today. When the thought occurred to me to commission this Mass I also did not foresee that it would occur on the feast day of St. Agnes, a virgin and martyr.
Story of St. Agnes
St. Agnes lived in Rome around the year 300, around the time the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Diocletian had begun. Being a beautiful young woman from a well-to-do Roman family she was highly sought after for marriage. But she turned down all of her suitors because she had consecrated her virginity to her heavenly spouse, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Well, that got those suitors quite riled up, and so they accused her to the Roman governor of being a Christian, confident that threats of torture would persuade her to change her mind. But she feared none of it, not the threat of fire, nor hooks, nor the rack, none of it. So her persecutors got the idea to violate her in another way, and so sent her to a house of ill-repute. But she had full confidence in her Lord that he would protect her purity. And so he did.
Exasperated at the defiance of this little girl – St. Agnes was only a teenager when she was martyred – the governor condemned her to be beheaded. St. Ambrose recounts that on hearing the death sentence, St. Agnes “went to the place of execution more cheerfully than others go to their wedding.” She is both virgin and martyr: young, fearless, and completely confident in the love and protection of her Lord.
“Protection,” you might ask? She ended up being executed after all, and in a most brutal way. What kind of protection is that? For St. Agnes, though – and all of the Christian saints and martyrs, for that matter – “protection” means protection of the integrity of one’s faith and virtue. This, in the end, is the only thing that matters, for we are all eventually going to die, sooner or later. It’s what happens in eternity that really matters.
Lesson from the Parable of the Ten Virgins
As both virgin and martyr, St. Agnes provides us the model and inspiration we need to build a culture of life in this new, changed post-Dobbs world. She already lived in her body the nuptial union with her Lord about which he teaches us in today’s Gospel reading.
The scenario of this parable would have been familiar to the people of that time and place, for it reflects the typical Jewish marriage customs in Biblical times: then (as now) the bridegroom and bride had attendants to accompany them; the bridegroom would go to the house of the bride in the evening and be received with joy and honor; then he would lead his bride to his house for the wedding feast and, with the consummation of the marriage, the process of becoming married would be complete. Delays were not uncommon, so we can understand the practicalities of the need to be prepared for one, just in case.
The practical details in the story, though, are symbolic, for they are lessons to us of the whole point of the Christian life in this world:
- The lamps represent faith, for it is only by the light of faith that we can perceive spiritual realities;
- The oil for those lamps represents good works, that is, a life of charity, of virtue, of faith put into action – this is what feeds faith and makes it shine bright just as oil feeds a lamp and keeps he flame alive to give off light;
- Falling asleep signifies death, and trimming lamps preparation to render an account of one’s works to God (cf. St. Augustine in serm. 23 de Verbis Domini);
- The cry at midnight, “Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” speaks to us of Christ’s return at the end of the world, when he will come to judge the living and dead, as St. Paul teaches us in First Thessalonians (“For the Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven” [1 Thes 4:16]).
Drawing on all of these elements, the lesson for us is clear: we will be judged by our faith, but our faith has to be informed by good works – virtue, charity – which keeps it alive, otherwise it dies. And after the final judgment, there is no turning back. Notice how definitive it is: “… the bridegroom came …. Then the door was locked.” There is absolute finality here: some are left out, excluded from the wedding feast – those who had no virtue, no acts of charity to shine the light of faith in the world.
Witnesses of Integrity of Faith and Virtue Today
In the Gospels, the wedding feast is the classic image of the Kingdom of God, for it is nothing less than the meaning of conjugal union: a comprehensive, complete communion of persons where the two become one yet also retain their unique individual identity. This is the communion that God seeks with us, and that the elect will enjoy in His Kingdom for all eternity.
This is the lesson St. Agnes teaches us: the willingness to give everything, even bodily life itself, to maintain the integrity of one’s faith and virtue and so be found blameless on the day of the visitation of our Lord Jesus Christ, and so brought into that perfect communion with him. The gift of virginity is, too, symbolic as well as literal, for it represents and embodies that purity which makes possible the total of give of self to another. This is the meaning of love, which is nothing less than that perfect communion, ultimately, communion with God.
St. Agnes, though, teaches us one more valuable lesson as well, one that can be found in her very name: lamb. The lamb is the animal of sacrifice. Sacrifice will inevitably come to those who live by the spiritual truths perceivable only by the light of faith. Sacrifice means “to make holy,” which comes about by giving yourself away in love for the good of another, for a greater good. This is what it means to be great in the eyes of God, not of the world.
My dear young people, you who are the Pro-Life Generation: God is calling you to greatness! Greatness does not come from power or wealth, or from what St. Paul calls wisdom by human standards, that is, the dominant narrative of a dehumanized culture divorced from the vision of faith in the one, true God. From where does greatness come, according to St. Paul? It comes from being foolish enough to be chosen by God to shame the wise of this world, that is, those who perpetrate the destructive myths of the culture of death; by being weak enough to shame the strong, having the spiritual strength to speak truth to power and endure the ridicule, insults and rejection that will come with it; by being lowly, humble and even despised so that God can use you to bring down those who are high and mighty in the eyes of the world but who, by word and example, lead others down the path of self-destruction. Greatness comes from the humility, innocence and spiritual strength that enables one to become a lamb of sacrifice.
Let the teenager St. Agnes be your model, your guide and your inspiration. Imitate her virtues of purity, courage and joy in living her life for the love of Christ. Like her, and St. Paul, let your only boast be our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave his all for us, for our sanctification and redemption, even though he did not stand to receive anything in return. May he be praised forever! Amen!
Photo: Dennis Callahan, Archdiocese of San Francisco