Today is the feast of St. Agnes, virgin and martyr, who was beheaded at the age of 12 or 13, about the year 304.
The young virgin Agnes was sought by many suitors. When she refused, she was denounced as a Christian. When she refused to sacrifice to the idols, she was sentenced to a brothel. When an “aura of purity” prevented her from being raped, she was condemned to death by beheading.
The story sounds so pious and sentimental that it can be easily dismissed as part of a puritanical Catholic approach to sexuality.
But it is more than that.
The first hint is the prayer for today’s Mass when we pray to God who chooses “what is weak in the world to confound the strong.”
By chance this year the first reading is the anointing of David. When Samuel thinks that the oldest son of Jesse ought to be the new king, God tells him:
Do not judge from his looks or his stature…. The Lord does not judge as humans do; humans see with the eyes; the Lord looks into the heart.
Agnes had the courage to stand up for her faith, her integrity. Despite her age, she “confounds the strong” by her faith.
I think that the best commentary on Agnes is in Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, a book which I have been reading regularly for the past few years.
In the story of Agnes… the opposition is not between sex and virginity. The conflict is between a young woman’s power in Christ to define her own identity versus a patriarchal culture’s claim to identify her in terms of her sexuality. According ot the view shared by her “suitors” and the state, if she would not be one man’s wife, she might as well be every man’s whore. Failing these options, she might as well be dead. Agnes did not choose death. She chose not to worship the gods of her culture. The God she worships sets an altogether different value on her body, her identity, and her human worth. Espoused to God, she was beyond the power of any man to “have his way with her.”
In a highly sexualized culture, persons – especially women – are reduced to commodities, things to be bought and used. But the example of Agnes is the example of one who refuses that narrow notion of the person.
God made humans for love – not as “love” objects, but as persons, subjects, who can love and be loved with the love that God shows us in becoming human and living with us.
We can live this love as married persons or a single persons. The key is whether we love.