Sex is great

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.

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The joy of creating

croppedRecently, my old college buddy Tom spent the weekend helping me to build an outdoor playset for my children. At least, that’s how he would describe it. It would be more accurate to say that I helped him. Tom is much more mechanically inclined than I am. I find it challenging to get the lids off of bottles. But Tom was able to look at a picture and description of the playset we wanted and take measurements and execute a plan. On Saturday morning, there was nothing in my backyard. By Sunday afternoon, there was a full size swing set, fort, slide, and rock wall with two very happy little boys climbing all over it.

It is joyous to create something like that. It is hard work, to be sure, yet there is an experience of the divine in it. God is the Creator. He is the maker of heaven and earth. We are made in His image. We share that same creative spark, that same yearning to make things.

I have never been good at making things with my hands, but I have always been good at making things out of words: Poems, songs, essays, stories, and sermons. I feel the same deep sense of satisfaction in that exercise that many people feel in making things out of stone, steel, and wood. You begin with nothing but a blank page and the spark of an idea. You connect one word to another, forming patterns of sound, rhyme, and thought. And when you are finished, if you are lucky, you have created something beautiful and unique that fills the space that was once empty. If that is the case, you can look at your work with satisfaction and without the least sense of arrogance or conceit say, “It is finished and it is good.”

Of course, I don’t always say that. Sometimes I look at what I’ve written and say, “It is crap.” Then I start over. Creation is a much more fraught process for human beings than it is for God. But in those rare moments when I get it right, I feel deeply gratified because something of God’s own creative life has worked through me to bring something new and wonderful into being.

When I write something, it feels as if it is flowing directly out of my soul, but that is not entirely true. In fact what I am doing is rearranging what was there before. I did not invent the words that I use. They are the raw materials that I build with, much like the large pile of lumber that we acquired in order to put together that playset. Even in the creative act that most resembles God’s own work, the act of begetting and bearing children, the action is not purely ours. The raw material of sperm and egg and chromosomes is developed into something gloriously, wonderfully new, yet it is only possible because those things were gifted to us.

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God creates out of nothing. When I think about that – I mean really think about it – I have to catch my breath. It is inconceivable to me, as someone who creates, not to have to use any building blocks. It was inconceivable to many in the ancient world as well, such as Plato and Aristotle. Yet that is the audacious claim that is revealed in Holy Scripture. God created out of nothing. There was nothing at all, no building blocks, no starting point. And then God said, “Let there be light.” And there was.

All of our raw supplies are God given. The wood for the playset came from trees, which came from other trees, which came from earlier plant life, which came from cells, which if you follow the chain back far enough came directly from the creative act of the Lord speaking a word. The words for writing evolve from languages that find their way back inexorably to that same first word. The biological building blocks of reproduction are handed down to us – traditioned to us – by the One who made all biology, the One who is the way, the truth, and the life. What a grand and unexpected joy! When we create, we partner with God. And when our creative work is done and something beautiful appears where before there was nothing, God says, “It is finished and it is good.”

God’s Self Portrait

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The French painter Marie-Denise Villers painted her most famous work, Young Woman Drawing, in 1801. It is a masterpiece and it is now widely believed that the painting is a self portrait. Every detail is powerfully communicative, from the way the light touches the folds of her dress and the strands of her hair to the posture with which she sits to draw her subject, presumably looking into a mirror. Though I was born more than two centuries after Villers and I know virtually nothing about her, just looking at this image makes me feel like I am in relationship with her.

Of course, this is part of the idea behind iconography. It is one of the reasons why so many icons portray Christ or the saints staring out at us. Icons are meant to be windows into the figures they depict. By seeing a saint’s image on an icon, we have a focus for calling out to that saint and offering our devotion. But neither Jesus nor the saints painted their own icons. What makes a self portrait so compelling to me is the idea that this is the artist’s own best expression of herself or himself. By painting herself, Villers has left behind a small piece of herself by which we can come to know her far more intimately than if the painting had been done by anyone else.

Over the past year, I have been reading and studying Saint Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Based on 129 Wednesday audience talks that the pope gave between 1979 and 1984, it is breath taking in its scope. The Church has not yet really begun to plumb its depths, and I have personally only scratched the surface of the surface, but if I were to try and sum up the central animating principle of this work, I would say that the human body is designed to speak to us the Gospel. This is part of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God. From Genesis through Revelation, the Scripture reveals to us over and over again that our bodies are God’s self portrait.

Central to this observation is the notion of sexual complementarity. This can be confusing, particularly since what John Paul means by sexual complementarity is different from how most Evangelicals use that term. What John Paul means is that our maleness and femaleness are not arbitrary. In the very ordering of our bodies as men and women, we see the attributes of God displayed. As men and women relate to each other, particularly in the Sacrament of marriage and in the bond of sexual union, there is expressed there a mystical unveiling of God’s own self. The love, fidelity, and fruitfulness of marriage, expressed through our bodies, is an icon of the love, fidelity, and generativity of God.

I find this to be such a beautiful idea, not just because it gives me an insight into the nature of God, but because of how blessedly affirming it is of bodies. To think of my body and the bodies of other people as holy icons is to re-imagine what the body is all about. Despite my imperfections, my extra pounds, my creeping gray, my body is a self portrait of God. And that is also true for other people, regardless of their size and shape, age, or the color of their skin.

Moreover, it means that I have something to learn from the bodies of women that is far greater than what the culture tells me women’s bodies are all about. The prevalent wisdom of western culture, written large on just about any blank surface, is that our bodies exist only for personal pleasure, and that women’s bodies in particular are made solely for the use and enjoyment of men. The Theology of the Body turns that deeply sinful notion upside down. It says that our bodies are holy and meant to point far beyond themselves to the very source of holiness. As I learn what it means to be a man, understanding the masculine nature of my body, I gain some insight into God. But just as importantly, as I learn to see femininity for what it really is, realizing the true blessedness of what God has expressed in the bodies of women that is different from what He has expressed in the bodies of men, I come to a fuller, richer picture of who God is and how He is at work in the world.

Of course, there is always the danger that the sign gets confused for the thing it signifies. As much as I love Marie-Denise Villers’ self portrait, I realize that it is not actually her. It is only a sign of the truth of who she is. If she were in the room with me, it would be ludicrous for me to ignore her in favor of the portrait. Likewise, the body is a sign of the reality of God, but God is in Himself much more than what He has expressed through His creation. The right way to appreciate the body is to see it the same way we see an icon, not as the thing that it depicts but as a doorway that can lead us into greater relationship.

All of this makes me wish I could paint. Alas, I cannot. But I am grateful for the gift of art in this world that points to the existence of God’s great majesty, just as I am grateful for God’s own artistry that draws each of us into the mystery of His love.