At a time when secluded wives were slavishly obedient to their husbands and teary mourners were hired to appear at funerals, when thrill-seeking opulence was the order of the day and stuff determined social status, Paul asks whether people could live without these features of life, of culture. To clarify, he’s not saying that happily married people should suddenly live like widows, or that mourners should pretend that nothing has happened. But he is asking whether the burdens which our culture imposes on us cannot be lifted away.
Paul asks this because of the impermanence of life. All things in this world change, and the world itself is passing away. So, how about we don’t dramatise the situation we find ourselves in, and instead have a loose grip on our culture. So, we say that it’s good that spouses receive each other’s love, care, and attention. We also say that the limit to that attention is when a spouse is no longer a spouse: when they live like their spouse’s child, parent, or slave. It’s good to mourn; the Lord has a beatitude for those who do: “They shall be comforted.” But the limit to mourning is when it's just a display, a performance conforming to expectations, rather than a memorialised act of hope.
We should go further down this path and look at our own culture, not just the one that Paul confronted.
We pride ourselves on giving everyone a fair-go. This is good: all people are equal in dignity, and so have the inherent right to seek legitimate forms of happiness. We think everyone capable of achievement. But what happens if I’ve had my fair-go, taken my shot and missed? Does our culture allow another shot or prefer to cancel an opponent? Christians may be more inclined to give someone another go because we believe in forgiveness. But what if even that has been given once? Will we be raised up in the eyes of our peers and allowed to try again with them? I suspect not. Paul might say of our fair-go that we should live as though everyone has already had one and failed. And so we shall begin again and again with everyone.
We also relish our informality, which will drift into irreverence. Some of this is good insofar as we treat everyone with the same degree of respect. We respect what people are rather than who they are. But that equality shouldn’t extend to cases when special knowledge is called for, when expertise and responsibility grant authority, when virtue and holiness are present. Paul would say that the members of our culture need a special kind of humility, one which will have us defer to those whose gifts exceed our own. That will mean each of us gives way to someone else sometimes and is given way to at other times.
And then there is our drinking. All legitimate pleasures can be enjoyed, and only the small minded and ungenerous deny them to others. We often pair drink with an occasion: we have birthday drinks and Christmas drinks, which is good because we are celebrating the gift of life. But the limit to drinking would be when it brings us no pleasure, or when we lose control and become a danger to self and others. Paul might say of our drinking that we should always be free not to drink as to drink.
When we continue down this path of critiquing our practices, we begin to see how our culture will be transformed, how its members will “repent and believe the Gospel.” Only Christ is eternal and unchanging, and therefore has the right to be part of our life from the beginning and always. Everyone we bring into our life will be a free choice of ours made in love; everything we have and do will be because we have held it up to the light of Christ and found it valuable in him.
If we truly commit ourselves to this great task of conforming our culture to Christ’s kingdom, we know we shall not be caught clawing at the sand when we’re called into the sea of eternity.
Fr Paul Rowse, OP Parish Priest