Saint Agnes the Virgin

Do not act the harlot!
1 Corinthians 6: 13

Last Sunday’s second reading (1 Corinthians 6: 13-20) began with a very strong statement in the Spanish translation I heard:

El cuerpo no es para fornicar, sino para server al Señor…
The body is not for fornication but for serving the Lord…

The version used in the US was a little less strong:

The body is not for immorality, but for the Lord…

Yet the verb translated as fornication or immorality comes from the Greek word for harlot and so a more pointed translation might be

The body is not for prostitution, for harlotry, but for the Lord.

This reading came to mind this morning as I read the entry on Saint Agnes in Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints: Daily Reflection on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.

Today is the feast of the youthful virgin and martyr Agnes. According to the early accounts, she was a twelve year old who refused offers of marriage because she had consecrated her virginity to Christ.

She was accused as a Christian by her suitors. She refused to deny Christ and was at first sentenced to a house of prostitution where no one dared touch her. The infuriated magistrate then had her beheaded.

The story of Saint Agnes has been read as a call for virginity and some have seen it as a denigration of the body and sexuality. But I think Robert Ellsberg’s commentary offers an alternative and even more challenging interpretation of her life:

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 to 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 no choose death. She chose not to worship the gods of her culture. The God she worshipped 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.” “Virgin” in this case is another way of saying Free Woman.

May this example of Agnes help us all remember that, as St. Paul put it, “you are not your own” and that we are called to “glorify God in your body.”

That’s real chastity!

 

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