We’ve been exploring this question (the purpose of sexuality) in our weekly Formation | Catechesis class at 9am on Sundays the past 3 weeks. We’ve been approaching it from a particular angle which has proved clarifying: Sexuality in reference to Christ.
It may not be intuitive to take our basis for talking about sexuality from a single, celibate man who walked the earth nearly 2,000 years before Freud, Kinsey, and Masters & Johnson. But starting with Jesus is the most Christian starting point imaginable. And, I might add, it’s the most fruitful in establishing a beautiful and compelling portrait of the meaning of sexuality for all people – married and single alike.
The first thing we need to establish is that Jesus Christ was/is sexual. He had a sex (which is necessary and foundational to sexuality). In Jesus’ case, He was male. He lived and died as a male. Upon His ascension, Christ went to the right hand of the Father where He took His resurrection body, which again, was male. But, there’s a mystery here that complicates this seemingly simple account of Jesus’ sex. When it comes to the sacramental dimension of Christ described by Paul in both Ephesians 1 and Colossians 1, we who are baptized are incorporated into Christ’s body. But it turns out, paradoxically and very importantly, that this Body belonging to Christ is described as feminine. The Church, the Body of Christ, is consistently pictured in the Scriptures as feminine, as a woman. So it turns out that the total Christ (Christ as head combined with His collective body, the Church) is a male + female union. This isn’t accidental.
Paul is explicit about this in Ephesians 5:31-32 when speaking about marriage between a man and woman. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” Paul is alluding to what is perhaps the deepest, most beautiful mystery in the universe – that God inscribed the gospel into our very bodies in the form of our complementary sexuality. This means that your body and your sex is not a merely incidental aspect to who you are and what God is doing in the world. As Pope John Paul II says, sexuality is “a vector of aspiration along which our whole existence develops and perfects itself from within.” By this he means that our sexuality, if understood and seen in its proper light, points the way to our ultimate salvation.
Thus, sexuality from a Christian perspective is a much bigger deal than many of us typically think it is. Sometimes Christians suggest that our secular society is too sexual. If anything, though, the truth is the exact opposite. Granted, our society is extremely sexualized in a particular way – i.e. animalistic and utilitarian notions of sexuality. But when viewed from a truly Christian perspective, the problem is that our society is not nearly sexual enough. In other words, it has a very truncated, narrow, and distorted notion of sexuality.
This is echoed in that insightful quote from C.S. Lewis (The Weight of Glory)
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
So let’s explore a robust Christian perspective on sexuality…
Fundamentally, sexuality is about communion (communion literally means “with union“). The word “sex” has etymological roots meaning “cut” or “separate” (from which we get related words like “section”). It refers to the fact that to be sexed is to be part of a whole. In other words, sexuality is a witness within us to the incompleteness of any individual human being. The creation account in Genesis 2 paints a poetic portrait of this truth. It isn’t accidental that the woman is separated from the man (taken out of the man’s side) by God. And then with their (re)union there is joyful exuberance: “this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” the man exclaims! The separating / creating action of Genesis 2 speaks to our universal, holistic longing to be joined to the other. But this isn’t just any “other”; to be complete it must be a sexually complementary other—an other that when brought together is generative of another other.
This “generative otherness” gets at what is meant in Genesis 1:26-27 when the text states that God made humankind in His image (“In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them”). The image of God is not complete in a mere individual or in a group of individuals of the same sex. While it’s not inaccurate to speak of individuals as “image-bearers”, it’s only when we think of humanity as a whole species (i.e. male + female) that we have the full expression of the image of God. —Note that the text is explicit that the image of God is male + female. But why? Because amongst other important qualities that make human beings uniquely Divine image-bearers, the male + female combination embodies two essential traits of the Trinitarian God: 1) That God is a union of otherness—that there is real otherness within the Trinity (The Father is not the Son who is not the Spirit, and so forth). And, 2) that the self-donating love of the Trinity finds an expression in the creation of the universe, i.e. it is generative of another other (creation is not God).
The male + female combination is uniquely able to create new life. In the complete, conscious, intentional self-donation of husband and wife to each other, space is created for another. So, the image of God is not merely about human dominion and authority (though these are important and distinguishing markers that separate animals from humans); it’s about free chosen, self-donating love in the context of generative otherness.
We see this further articulated in Colossians 1:15 where Paul refers to Christ as “the image of the invisible God.” This language intentionally echoes Genesis 1:26-27. If you reflect for a moment about it, this image is not actually different than the Genesis 1 image. Christ is the new Adam (note that scholars point out that the Hebrew word Adam means humanity in general in Genesis 1, and is not intended to mean the individual male human we meet in Genesis 2 named Adam – now distinguished from Eve). And per the “total Christ” sacramental aspect mentioned above, what Colossians 1:15 together with Col. 1:18 are pointing to, again, is a male + female image. It is the feminine image of the Church combined with the masculine image of Christ as head that in their union culminates in New Creation. Isn’t that beautiful?!! It’s a retelling of Genesis 1-2, but fulfilled (filled full) and completed in and through Christ. Rather than it merely being two finite humans coming together (Adam & Eve) to produce offspring, it is humanity being taken up into and joined permanently to the Divine life – what the Eastern church calls Theosis or what II Peter 1:4 means when it talks about becoming participants of the divine nature.
So, it’s not accidental that the Bible begins and ends with a wedding. Genesis 2 describes the first human pair being joined together as a sign, symbol, foretaste, and instrument of what Revelation chapters 19, 21-22 describe as the Marriage Supper of the Lamb – the culmination of our sexuality. This is nothing less than the communion of heaven and earth, of Christ and the Church; it’s what our deepest sexual desire is pointing toward. This is far deeper, more meaningful, and more beautiful than mere procreation or pleasure or erotic bonding between two people.
And, this isn’t just an attempt to “spiritualize” sex; it’s to point out that the physical and material aspects of our sexuality sit within a profoundly spiritual dimension. For humanity, sex is never merely about biology (though the body and biology clearly matter); it’s never just about body parts, hormones, natural instinct, and procreation (though these all play their part in the story). Sexuality is deeply sacramental. It’s the primordial mystery revealed as gospel (good news) in Christ.
If what I’m saying is on the right track, it means we must redeem the very nature of the term “sexual” before we can talk about what to do with sexuality. That is what I’ve been trying to do.
In the next post, I’ll talk about the significance of this account of sexuality for married and single people (yes, single people are sexual too)…