Everyone is interested in sex. That, to me, seems reasonable. Sex is interesting. But is it great?
I do not mean by that the now common usage of the word great – something that we really like – but the older sense of the word great: something that is larger than life, something that far surpasses the ordinary, something that is truly amazing and breathtaking, worth treating with a certain reverence and awe.
Throughout most of human history, this is how sex was understood, around the world, in various cultures and religions. Ancient pagans invented fertility cults that included ritualized sexual acts. Their approach was not what we might call virtuous today, but it was nevertheless predicated on an understanding that sex is powerful and that it somehow connects us with the divine.
The Bible elevates sex as well by elevating the whole institution of marriage. We see in the Scriptures not only a regulating of sex within marriage but an understanding that in the sexual act is an image of the relationship between God and humanity. The metaphor most often used in Scripture to describe God’s relationship with us is that of marriage. An entire book of the Bible—the Song of Solomon—is an exploration both of sexual love between a husband and a wife as well as the relationship between God and His covenant people. Ephesians 5 speaks plainly of the “mystery” of how Jesus relates to the Church as His “bride.” And of course, there’s this from the book of Revelation:
Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:7-9)
The culmination of the whole of human history will be the union of Christ and His Church in marriage. This is not a sexless claim. Sex itself is the seal of the covenant. This is why, repeatedly in the Old Testament, the image of sexual infidelity is used as a metaphor for the infidelity of the people to God. Sex is seen as the ultimate act of joining. “Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her?” says Paul, “for, as it is written, ‘the two will become one flesh’” (1 Corinthians 6:16, quoting Genesis 2).
There are certainly examples of Christian leaders and teachers throughout history who have said unfortunate things about sex and the body, but they are outweighed by both the Biblical witness and the far clearer tradition of depicting sex as something sacred and worth preserving as such. One of my favorite icons is that of St. Anna and St. Joachim, the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Our Lady was conceived in the usual way, through the marriage bed of her parents. The icon–shown above–depicts the two saints embracing in front of a bed. Herein we find the fulfillment of the doctrine of the immaculate conception, that no original sin was passed on to Mary in her conception, no hint of sin tied to the sexual union between her parents. What could be more of an endorsement of the greatness of sex than that?
Yet today, as our culture increases its march into a belligerent secularity, sex is not seen as great. It is still interesting to people, to be sure, as any beer commercial proves. Our culture is obsessed with sex and with the strange and ill defined concept of “sexual freedom.” But sex is not great anymore. It does not inspire awe, let alone reverence. It is ordinary, recreational, blasé. We treat it as if it is as casual as a handshake, something we should engage in “safely,” by which we mean through contraception, protecting ourselves from one of the main purposes of sex while keeping at arm’s length its power to unite us as one with each other and with God.
That this is so can be seen most clearly in the western cultural assumption that sex is a precursor to marriage. For thousands of years, across cultures, sex was understood to be the seal of marriage, the great beacon at its center that made marriage different from every other relationship. Of course, there has always been sex outside of marriage, viewed with varying degrees of stigma and shame, but the sex of the marriage bed was the apex of the marital relationship, the place where it went from simply human to divine.
Now, however, there is such a strong expectation that sex will happen before marriage that the very notion of “waiting” is ridiculed as a retrograde barbarism, when it is even addressed at all. The average sitcom today during prime television viewing hours has unmarried characters engaging in casual sex without even a nod towards some kind of discernment on their part over whether or not this is a good idea. That would not have been true even as recently as thirty years ago.
Marriage itself is still treated with a certain degree of awe, but it is at another level than sex. It is not uncommon for someone considering marriage to say, “The sex is great, but I don’t know if I’m ready for that level of commitment.” The very words of the second clause disprove the first, at least on a grammatical level. Sex that does not have a commitment of the binding together of two as one flesh is not great at all, even if it is pleasurable to the senses. In the modern west, sex is impotent.
The secular orthodoxy that says that sex must be fun and free of constraint is a major part of what keeps people today out of the Church. When people come to investigate the Christian faith, questions about sex are usually at the top of their list. The wise priest or pastor knows though that such questions cannot be quickly answered. The answers that the Christian tradition offers are not going to make sense to most people who have been brought up to think of sex more as a marker of identity and personal choice than as a sign of the love and faithfulness of God.
We have to learn what it means to be human beings again. Only then will we be able really to understand why sex is great. Like so much else of value that is being tossed into the fire in our age, the greatness of sex must be protected and preserved in the Church if nowhere else. We must become the custodians of the holiness of sex until the day finally comes when the world, exhausted by its ever-fruitless search for greater sexual freedom and expression, will once again wonder just what it was that made us think sex was so darned interesting in the first place.