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Consecrated Life in the New Testament

Sunday, May 03, 2015

The New Testament contains many starting points for the Christian consecrated life.

But while the consecrated life has clear origins in Jesus’ life and teaching, it does not receive a fully developed form or theology until later. We can draw a comparison here to the doctrine of the Trinity, which received its clearer and fuller exposition in the subapostolic and Patristic periods (i.e. after the New Testament). Luther and other Reformers denied the presence of ‘monasticism’ in the New Testament, but the elements are all there. Poverty, celibacy, obedience are called the ‘evangelical counsels’ precisely because they are found in the 'Gospel’. Moreover, we now know that quasi-monastic Jewish communities existed in Jesus’ day, notably the ascetic Essene and Qumran communities, suggesting a wider context for the early development of consecrated life in Christianity.

From the New Testament itself, we see that Jesus himself is the perfect role-model of the consecrated life: he was a poor man of humble origins, who had 'nowhere to lay his head’; he was chaste and celibate, inviting others too to become 'eunuchs for the Kingdom’; and he was perfectly obedient to the Father ('not my will but thine’). Indeed, Christ ‘humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross’ (Phil 2). In the Gospels Jesus invites some people to follow him in the way of these evangelical counsels, though some like the rich young man turn away (Matt. 19). But the Twelve disciples are willing to drop everything – family, work, and independence – when they respond to this call: ‘At once they left their nets and followed him’ (Mark 1:18).

Besides the Gospels, St Paul praises the ‘undivided loyalty’ to the Lord of the unmarried, emphasising especially the practical dimension of lacking family responsibilities (1 Cor. 7). In the first community of Christians at Jerusalem, the Apostles are dedicated to full-time prayer and preaching and renounce individual property, having all goods in common (Acts 6). This is a practical arrangement, but one ordered towards a life of virtue and dedication to God. In Revelation (14:4), great honour is given to the virgins who ‘follow the Lamb wherever he goes’. Virgins, both male and female, were prominent in early Christian writing, and even organised into distinct groups. Their celibacy was regarded as a sign of the coming Kingdom, and these consecrated persons were considered at the heart of the Church’s life. They manifest (as St John Paul II wrote) ‘the striving of the whole Church as Bride towards union with her one Spouse [Jesus]’ (Vita Consecrata, 3; cf. Eph. 5).

So consecrated life has a theological purpose, not just practical. It is a sign of the Kingdom of God: in giving up some of the ordinary kinds of human fulfilment, the consecrated person puts their trust in the one supreme good which is God. The consecrated life aims at a close following of Christ, as he said: 'If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Matt. 16:24).

Jesus was not just a prophet announcing a message: rather, Jesus himself is the Kingdom, as Origen said. Being with Jesus, being in Jesus, and therefore becoming more like him – that is how we enter the Kingdom of Heaven. If we want to understand consecrated life (or indeed any Christian life), we should look to Jesus as our model. And so what the New Testament reveals to us about Jesus, it reveals also about our own Christian vocations.

Image: Duccio di Buoninsegna, Calling of Peter and Andrew (1308-11)

Fr Matthew Jarvis O.P.


Fr Matthew Jarvis is currently studying Patristics at the Catholic University of Lyon.


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