Condemnation not commendation; the issue of women wearing a veil – Monday, 24th week in ordinary time – 1 Corinthians 11:17-26,33
( Please read the entire chapter)
Chapter 11:2 to chapter 14:40 now focuses on the conduct of the Corinthian Christians at congregational meetings. There were certain disorders at the worship services which are brought to Paul’s attention; practices that Paul found offensive. The first of these deals with the ‘scandal of unveiled women’ (11:3-16) and I want to briefly touch upon it before I take on the text of today.
I am going to approach this text dispassionately at first and then weigh in with my thoughts.
At the time of St Paul, there were some women who were taking part in the worship services with their heads uncovered. Paul’s arguments come from both scriptural considerations and social conventions of that time. From Genesis 2, he and the Jewish world at that time, deduced that women were inferior to men and this conviction underlines the whole discussion. For him, a man’s uncovered head was a symbol of his acceptance of the authority given to him for he was created in God’s image. To cover his head with a symbol of inferiority would be dishonourable. In Paul’s religious world view, a woman was created for subjugation and hence she dishonours ‘her head’, that is (her) man. In uncovering her head she asserts her will to be his equal. For Paul, women are free to pray or prophesy, but only when as they demonstrated that they are under the authority of male leadership in the church.
First, let us not vilify St Paul too quickly, turn one page of your Bible and Paul was emancipating a woman’s conjugal rights in a marriage at a time when women were sexually objectified. Yet, in our day and time, it is difficult to swallow what Paul says. What Paul advocates was more a reflection of the cultural bias of the time rather than the scriptural text he uses to justify his stance. The Greco- Roman world and Jewish social customs mandated that married woman wear a veil as a sign that she was under rule of a man; ironically, they believed a woman received legitimization only if she was relationally linked to a man; if not, the opinions about her were up for the taking.
Where does the Church stand on this issue? The 1917 Code of Canon Law (in No. 1262) said that men in church should be bare-headed while women “shall have a covered head.” That same canon also said, “It is desirable that, consistent with ancient discipline, women be separated from men in church.” But in 1976, an instruction issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith indicated that this 1917 directive was no longer in force. The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith said, “It must be noted that these ordinances, probably inspired by the customs of the period, concern scarcely more than disciplinary practices of minor importance, such as the obligation imposed upon women to wear a veil on their head. … Such requirements no longer have a normative value.”). This was then inked in the new code of canon law of 1983.
Some might argue that the Church is not being faithful to scripture and is cherry picking what can and cannot be changed or adapted considering the changing social times. Let’s be clear, the Church cannot change natural law and it is not natural law that is being discussed here. The ten commandments are not up for discussion; they come from God. Based on these laws the Church bases her teachings both directly and indirectly. But in the light of the times, she may adapt social practices and traditions that may even find mention in scripture, as in the case of the issue of wearing veils. While no one can force you to wear a veil, no one can insist that you take it off at mass; just as no priest can deny you from receiving Holy Communion on the tongue and even kneeling. (covid protocols not withstanding)
The second congregational issue that dominates chapter 11 and is the crux of our text is the matter of abuses of the Lord’s supper. This passage is very important because it contains the oldest account of the institution of the Lord’s supper; a text written ten years before the first Gospel of Mark was written and a text that is read every Maundy Thursday in our Churches.
There was some disorderly conduct at the worship services far more serious than the issue of unveiled women. These were abuses that had crept into the Church regarding the Lord’s supper. While Paul began 11:2 commending the Corinthians for remembering him in everything, here, 16 verses later, he condemns them. In his mind, their gatherings were more harmful than helpful. So, what had the Corinthians done now?
Clearly, there were social or economic divisions within the Church. Up till now, we have heard of divisions driven by leadership issues in Corinth. Evidently, the Corinthians gathered as a church from time to time to share a common meal which is or which included a celebration of the Lord’s supper. Because the risen Jesus so often ate with His disciples, it made sense to the early church that eating together went together with celebrating the Lord’s Supper.
The more prosperous members of the church arrived first with the ‘food and drink’. The poorer members came late after long working hours with their meagre provisions. Unwilling to delay their meal, the early comers would eat and drink, some in excess, without wanting to partake of the Lords supper with the poorer brethren. Paul’s message is both strong and plain – “If you want to eat or drink selfishly, do it at home!”
It was clear that these brethren have misunderstood the meaning of this ‘sacrament’ and of the Church as ‘the Body of Christ.’ To make his point clear, Paul recalls the solemn circumstances at the original meal of the Lord. He reminds them of the ‘last supper when Jesus instituted the Eucharist.’
Because of this simple selfishness, the Corinthian Christians brought the judgment of God upon themselves, just for the sake of food! Paul wants to put it all in perspective and remind them that it isn’t worth it at all.
Today’s larger text of chapter eleven has emotional, social, spiritual and pastoral concerns. There is much to think about. While some may insist on reverence shown by wearing external headgear, we should not defile the reverence that ought to be shown to the ‘Body of Christ’ in the manner we treat each other. Let us also learn to respect not only the Lord but spiritual choices that others may take in reverence for the Lord.