A Catholic journalist recently commented that the world will begin to take the church seriously when it talks about sex if the church, first of all, affirms what it should always be affirming, namely, that for married persons the marriage bed is their daily eucharist.
Sex as a sacrament. Sex as eucharist. Is this high spiritual truth or is it blasphemy? It can be either since, within a Christian understanding, sex is precisely either sacrament or perversity.
In a recent article in GRAIL, British psychiatrist, Jack Dominion, discusses the sacramental role of sex within a marriage. Without denying what traditional Christian thought has always affirmed, that is, that procreation is a function of married sexuality, he goes on to suggest five possibilities (ultimately, sacramental possibilities) which can be realized each time a married couple make love:
- First, each time they do make love they, potentially, verify their personal significance to each other. More simply put, each act of sexual intercourse is a reminder of (and a celebration of) the fact that they are the most important person in each of each other’s life. Sexual intercourse, within its proper context, love consecrated through marriage, verifies and celebrates (physically, emotionally, and spiritually) what was pronounced in their marriage vows, namely, ‘My love is now consecrated, displaced, for you!’ ”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once told a couple he was marrying: “Today you are young and very much in love. You think that your love will sustain your marriage. Well, I give you the opposite advice: let your marriage sustain your love.” Sexual orgasm facilitates a personal encounter that speaks of and demands precisely the type of exclusiveness and fidelity that the marriage vows promise.
- Secondly, sexual intercourse is one of the most powerful acts through which a couple reinforce each other’s sexual identity, making, as Dominion puts it, the woman feel fully feminine and the man fully masculine.
- Third, sexual intercourse can be, potentially, a most powerful act of reconciliation, healing, and forgiveness. In all relationships, perhaps especially in married ones, wounds will appear (arising from, among other things, different temperaments, disappointment with each other, past histories, weaknesses and inadequacies) which will, at one level, appear to create an unbridgeable chasm. Sexual orgasm can facilitate a peak experience within which harmony is restored beyond the hurt, not because the hurt is taken away, but because in that peak experience something is felt which, for a second at least, lets persons drop the load of hurt, disappointment, and bitterness and meet in a super reconciliation which is a foretaste of the reconciliation of heaven itself.
- Fourth, sexual intercourse is perhaps, singularly, the most powerful way a couple has of telling each other that they wish to continue in this consecrated relationship. Freud once said we understand the structure of a thing by looking at it when it’s broken. Thus we see that within a marriage when the sexual bond is broken, when there is an unwillingness or a hesitancy to sleep with each other, there is, at some level, also some unwillingness or hesitancy to continue the relationship at a very deep level.
- Finally, sexual intercourse is, as Dominion so aptly puts it, a rich vein of thanksgiving. Orgasm, within a proper relationship, spawns gratitude.
Given these possibilities for sex, it does not strain the imagination to see that the marriage bed is, potentially, a sacrament, a daily eucharist.
A sacrament is, as theology as always said in one fashion or another, someone or something which visibly prolongs a saving action of Christ; something visible, fleshy, tangible, incarnate, which somehow makes God present.
More specifically still, what takes place in the marriage bed (between a couple who are properly loving each other) parallels what takes place between ourselves and Christ in the eucharist. Each eucharist also has those five possibilities: In that encounter we say to Christ and Christ says to us: “My life is consecrated, displaced, for you.” Through that encounter, as well, we reinforce our identity as Christians, are embraced in a super-reconciliation, announce through word and action that we want to continue in a deep relationship with Christ, and are imbued with and express gratitude.
The marriage bed, like the eucharist, is fleshy, tangible, visible and incarnate. (Not at all a sacrament for angels!) Like the eucharist too it expresses special love, fidelity, reconciliation, and gratitude in an earthy way. That quality, its earthiness, makes it, like the eucharist, a very powerful and privileged sacrament. Through it the word becomes flesh and dwells among us.