A nun I know was travelling one day by airplane and found herself engaged in a conversation with a lively young man. The young man had a myriad of questions, many concerning celibacy. At a certain point, he remarked: “Looking at you, what intrigues me is that you are obviously a person who has a zest for life. Now think, Sister, how much richer your life could be if you also had sex!” The nun simply replied: “Looking at you, what intrigues me is that you are obviously a person who is sincere and is searching for love. Love and sex aren’t always the same thing. Now think how much richer your life could be if you understood that!”
This incident can help us understand why Christ chose to incarnate his sexuality in the manner that he did, namely, as virgin. By living and loving as virgin, Christ was not in any way trying to teach – as has sometimes been taught in the past – that consecrated celibacy is superior to marriage, or that there is something within sexual relations that works against the spiritual life. Rather, his point, put crassly for the sake of clarity, is that the kingdom of God is more about the human heart than it is about the human groin.
Within Christ’s perspective, the kingdom of God is about love, the non-exploitive meeting of human hearts. It consists of God and all persons of sincere will coming together in an all-in-one-heart-and-flesh community of life within which hearts are bonded in friendship, love, celebration and playfulness. Sex has a place within that, a beautiful and intensely poignant place. But it is not the kingdom, and to be the beautiful gift it was created to be, it must always be linked to a chaste and permanent meeting of human hearts. It may never just be, as poet Margaret Atwood put it, “a dentistry, the slick filling of aches and cavities.”
Few messages are as urgently needed by our age as this challenge from Jesus to properly sort through the relationship between love and sex. We are a society that has all but turned sexology into a doctrine of salvation. The classical language of salvation (which is the language of love) – “paying the price of sin,” “giving until crucifixion,” “suffering unto death” – has, for the largest part, been replaced by the language of sex. Love and salvation are talked about more in the language of Masters and Johnson than they are in the language of Christ.
Accordingly, for too many of us, love and salvation are seen more as the temporary mating of human bodies than as the permanent meeting of human hearts. The price we pay for this is loneliness. It is no mere accident that we are probably the loneliest society in the recorded history of humankind. We are also probably the most sexually active. Somehow, the increase in sexual activity has not translated itself into an alleviation of loneliness and restlessness. For all our sexual freedom and sophistication, we are caught up ever more deeply in restless chaos. There is salvation in love alone. There is no justification in sex alone. The algebra of Christ’s virginity is that, among other things, friendship and love, celebration and community, happiness and the kingdom, lie in the coming together of hearts. Sexuality contributes to the building up and the consummation of this community of hearts only when it helps lead to the joy and order that come from fidelity and chastity.
As Christians, therefore, we must incarnate our sexuality into the world in such a way that it constantly shows that love and the heart are the central realities of life and the kingdom. We do this not by attempting to be asexual, or by setting the enjoyment of sex against the spiritual life, but rather by attempting to be sexual in the proper sense – namely, in the way that Christ was. This can be done whether we are celibate or married. If we are celibate, and chaste, and yet are persons who are interpersonally unfearful, clearly sexual and warmly human, then we cannot help but challenge an age which, for all its searching, lives in loneliness and pain. Celibacy, if properly lived, can be an important way to keep alive, visible and in the flesh, that part of the incarnation which tells us that, when one is speaking of love, the human heart is the central organ.
Marriage, if properly lived out, is also excellently suited to teach this. Married persons imitate and help keep incarnate Christ’s sexuality just as celibates do. Christ’s virginity was not intended to set the joys of sex against the spiritual life. Sexually consummated love, if it is respectful, aesthetic, and linked to fidelity is also a visible, enfleshed prolongation of the incarnation. Since married love puts sexuality and love into their proper relationship, it visibly prolongs and transubstantiates Christ’s sexuality. It not only helps keep incarnate the life-creating power of sexuality, but it challenges powerfully the misconstrued notion that suggests that sex, disembodied from chastity and commitment, can in any way play a meaningful role in bringing final happiness and fulfilment into human life…or, indeed, be of any use in the building up and consummation of God’s kingdom.
How much richer our lives could be if we understood that!