Friday 24th April 2015: The Hidden Glory of Sex!

Now there’s a heading you won’t see too often on a Catholic blog or publication!  So let me explain.  In 1997 the Vatican issued what’s called a Vademecum (a sort of directive) for priests on how to improve the way they counsel spouses in the confessional. Pope St. John Paul II wanted further study on the issues so a series of essays culminated in the French publication ‘Conjugal Morality and the Sacrament of Penance – Reflections on the Vademecum for Confessors’. Thirteen contributors further explored the relationship between the supernatural power of the Eucharist and Penance with the spiritual dynamic and fecundity of matrimonial morality. In an essay by Fr. A Mattheus SJ on ‘The Christian Call to Holiness and Marital Love’, there is a striking simile drawn between the one flesh sexual union of husband and wife and the epiclesis of the Mass; the invocation of the Holy Spirit by the priest over the bread and wine on the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer. The idea is that the Holy Spirit broods and descends upon the (non contraceptive) sexual union of the spouses in like manner to the sanctification of the gifts on the altar. The faithful, fruitful, life-giving and total sexual love of spouses should evoke an odour of sanctity in the home, and therefore the Church, so the Holy Spirit blesses the altar of the matrimonial bed, the heart of the domestic church.

We’ve tended to think as Catholics, and indeed, as a society, that the private nature of the marital act is exactly that: private. But on a much deeper level it is never really private. Though deeply personal, nevertheless as an action of the Holy Spirit its interpersonal dynamic and nature actually affect us all as the Mystical Body of Christ. Authentic marital sexual intimacy is good, beautiful and holy. It’s redemptive. Spouses need to hear it and clergy need to teach it.

We are reminded of this hovering of the Spirit by the baldacchino or canopy above the altar in the sanctuary of many of our churches. Like the veil over a bride, it represents, figuratively-speaking, the canopy of God’s blessing over the marriage bed. It means that the altar of Christ’s sacrifice is closely connected to the unconditional love of the spousal sexual union. St Mechtilde, a German mystic of the 13th century, echoed the same idea when he wrote that Christ’s “noble nuptial bed was the very hard wood of the Cross on which he leaped with more joy and ardour than a delighted bridegroom.” That is why the Church holds the physical sexual love-making bond between husband and wife in such high regard because it is truly one of thanksgiving to God. That is to say, it points to the generous and reconciling power of Christ’s love so clearly present in the Mass.  In the Eucharist we receive Christ and He receives and transforms us. So too, husband and wife say “Take, this is my body” and, like Christ, should hold nothing back from their spouse in that coupling. As the bread and wine on the altar are transubstantiated in to the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, in like manner only an authentic matrimonial sexual embrace can be a transforming grace, making it possible for husband and wife to persevere in all the daily unending acts of sacrificial love which make their home a fragrant offering to God, and which makes it possible for us to proudly be called the domestic church.

“Could it not be said that the Holy Spirit is in some sense the sacramental marriage bond which links the spouses at the very heart of their self-giving to each other in Christ?” Cardinal Marc Ouellet. (Divine Likeness – Toward a Trinitarian Anthropology of the Family p. 43. Erdmann)  

– Edmund Adamus
Director, Office of Marriage and Family Life – Diocese of Westminster

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