Thursday, April 24, 2008

Eucharist, Sex & Conversion

I recently gave a talk--actually, gave it a second time, as I'd originally prepared it for a group of Catholic college students--that I thought someone might like to see it here. The formatting won't be very elegant, and time won't allow me to go through and "neaten it up."

Let me also say, I honestly don't recall if my basic outline itself didn't come from one of the sources cited, if so, please let me know, I simply want to get good ideas out there, not get credit I don't deserve.

I am going to talk about the Eucharist, sex and conversion. I admit I’m not sure if this is more a talk about sexuality, that has Eucharistic overtones, or if it’s the other way around—I’ll let you figure that out. But it seems to me that conversion is the most important thing.

No doubt this linkage sounds funny. I think it’s worth a few words about why.

Sin fractures us, so that our bodies and souls do not work in harmony; and we aren’t at ease “in our own skins.” Before the first sin, Adam and Eve were naked and “unashamed” (Gen. 2:25). It was after that they needed to clothe themselves--and it was their idea, not God's!

Now, other than making you laugh nervously, why am I pursuing this? It has to do with the question of “conversion.” Conversion is a good Latin word that means a change in direction. In that sense, the Eucharist isn’t really the sacrament of conversion. Rather, baptism, then penance, are the “change direction” sacraments. Of course, we mean more than “change direction” when we speak of conversion. We mean, what? Change; purification; transformation. Now those ideas are Eucharistic.

Now, there are a lot of ways to talk about the transformation that the Eucharist brings: unity; sinlessness; holiness; “theosis” or divinization.

(Here I extemporated on what "divinization" means: as so many of the Fathers of the Church have said, "God became man so that men might become God"--i.e., we really are united to God, we share his nature, we become "divine" in some sense we have a hard time describing.)

But here’s what I want to focus on. We know the Eucharist has the power to bring total transformation. So—how does that happen? What does it look like? Why don’t we change faster—why does it seem I don’t change at all?

This is why I want to talk about the Eucharist, in conjunction with human sexuality—both for parallels, and for insights.

Let me begin with Christopher West, a leading author in the area of Pope John Paul’s “Theology of the Body.” I know many of you have an interest in this topic.

"I can give myself [my body] to you, and you can give yourself [your body] to me, and we can live in a life-giving communion of persons" (marriage...).

The Pope calls this the "nuptial meaning of the body," that is, "the [body's] capacity of expressing love: that love precisely in which the person becomes a gift and—by means of this gift—fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence" (General Audience of 1/16/80).

The body has a "nuptial" or "marital" meaning because, as the Second Vatican Council taught, "man can only find himself by making a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 24). This nuptial meaning of the body—to find oneself by giving oneself—is, according to the pope, "the fundamental element of human existence in the world" (General Audience 1/16/80).

Now, what’s that got to do with the Eucharist? Well, first, it has to do with the whole sacramental way God deals with us. We are body-spirit; we encounter reality, we learn, discover, choose good or evil, become whatever we will become, in and through material reality. This seems rather commonplace, but it helps us understand ourselves and how God works.

It means that the only way we experience grace is through some material, “this-world” experience. Otherwise, how would we know we’d experienced God? A Calvinist friend of mine said to me, “The problem I have with you Catholics is you believe grace is mediated.”

My response was to agree—then, starting with the call of Abraham, the prophets, the ways God worked with his People throughout the Old Testament, the covenant, the worship, the Incarnation—the Bible itself!...all “prior” (as he saw it) to the Church and sacraments—I concluded, “If you’ll notice, mediation is the only way we experience grace!”

We experience God in a “material” way—the sacraments being a prime example. And our experience itself—our conversion—will only happen in context of our own materiality.

In other words—it won’t happen all at once.

Another insight: we aren’t saved from our materiality, our humanity—we are saved in it, through it—our bodily-ness and all that goes with it, is part of what is saved, and is a means by which we are saved. Just make a connection here—then we’ll move on—with the doctrine of Resurrection: our bodies are saved, too.

So let me bring in another author, to talk about the sacraments of Eucharist, and matrimony: Mary Rousseau, professor of philosophy at Marquette University, wrote:

Pope John Paul II rightly refers to the Eucharist as the source of the Sacrament of Matrimony, which in turn is the source of families and, through families, of the Civilization of Love.

There is, indeed, a most intimate connection between the Sacrament of Matrimony and the Eucharist. Jesus' love is the love of a Bridegroom for his Bride.

The Mass itself, as his continuing free acceptance of his death, is a marital act. Indeed, it is the marital act of all marital acts. Unlike other references to the relation of Christ to the Church, such as Shepherd to sheep, King to subjects, and so on, the Bridegroom-to-Bride reference is primary and non-figurative. It is not a metaphor, but a literal statement that Jesus' love for us is marital. [Emphasis added.] It is, of course, not sexual, not reproductive in a physical way.

Continuing with Professor Rousseau:

“The fact of divine marital love tells us something about the core essence of human marital love.”

And what is that?

“Like our Lord's love for us, human marital love must be completely self-giving, free of any self-seeking—it must be unconditional, gratuitous, faithful, permanent, and given to no rivals.”[2]

Rousseau continues in this vein, more about matrimony and sexuality, than about the Eucharist. There are some interesting insights here, about sexuality in general, homosexuality, even the issue of priestly ordination. Feel free to bring it up in your questions. But, to get back to the Eucharist, consider two other things she says.

“The divine marital love of Christ and his Church…reaches its high point in Jesus' free acceptance of his death, the acceptance that is sacramentally enacted in the Eucharist.”

And here—drawing from Pope John Paul—about the marital act:

“They fairly shout to each other, in a clear and dramatic symbolic action, ‘Take me, I'm all yours, I'm holding nothing back. Do with me what you will, from now on.’ Their body-language re-states their marriage vows.”[3]

You know what is key here—both in the “success” of marriage as a sacrament, as well as in the Eucharist—as ways to transform us? It’s the experience of ecstasy. No, I don’t mean the drug! Ekstasis—a good Greek word—means “to stand outside of.” If you think about it, all really powerful experiences we have are ecstatic experiences.

We go to a movie and lose ourselves: ekstasis; if something really makes us laugh; if we have a “good cry”; a swell of patriotism—or, to return to our earlier imagery: a rush of erotic and sexual feeling—what do we say? “We get carried away.”

Now, look at the marital act: it is literally ecstatic. Now consider what St. Paul wrote in Philippians: “Though he was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. “Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).

Think about that. Paul’s talking about the Cross; it’s also powerful image of marriage; and it is what becomes totally real for us at the Mass—in the Eucharist. At Mass—in communion—Christ does that for us; and he calls us to do exactly the same!

I want to bring in St. Bernard of Clairveaux. I’m drawing freely now from Father Jordan Aumann’s Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition.

The mystical theology of St. Bernard is found in his treatise on the love of God and in his commentary on the Song of Songs…He identifies Christ as the bridegroom, and the Church or the individual soul as the bride.

In the beginning the love for Christ is sensible or carnal; it focuses on the humanity of Christ…And although love for Christ in his humanity is a great gift of the Holy Spirit, it is, says St. Bernard, “none the less carnal as compared with that other love which is not so much related to the Word made flesh as to the Word as wisdom, the Word as justice, the Word as truth, and the Word as holiness.”

So, we see the “carnal” approach isn’t bad—it just isn’t enough.

St. Bernard presses us on to “mystical union,” where our love is spiritual, and passes beyond the humanity of Christ in order to concentrate on his divinity. Bernard speaks of the “the rapture of the pure soul in God or the loving descent of God into the soul…

When the soul is completely purified and is well exercised in spiritual love, it may, if called by God, enter a mystical union and become the bride of the Word; it contracts a spiritual marriage with the Word and is completely identified with the divine will in the transforming unions.

I’d like to add here two points: notice the soul is purified—passive mood: God does it, we receive it. No room for a “we save ourselves” mentality. Second, he says, “if called by God”: I’d respectfully submit that we are all called by God to contract a “spiritual marriage” with Christ—there really is no other destiny for us: Christ has only a Bride—no “girlfriends”!

We heard mention of the Song of Songs, let’s consider that next.

I’m drawing now from The Cantata of Love, by Father Blaise Arminjon, S.J., a commentary on the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is little-read, little-quoted, little-appreciated. Why? Because it seems too erotic. Well, it is erotic.

Arminjon writes,

St. John of the Cross gives a beautiful commentary on the first verse of the Song: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth." He explains that the Bride, in her exile, does not want anymore to be told about her Bridegroom, no matter how beautifully.

Now she wants to talk directly to him, without any intermediary, and to be with him at last. The messages of those who had been sent, i. e., the prophets and wise men of the Old Testament cannot content her any longer. She needs Jesus Christ now and immediately. The first verse therefore contains all the waiting, all the desire, of the Old Testament ardently expecting the Messiah.

Isn’t that beautiful? Let’s hear more:

There is…a progression in the experience of love: here he is; here is a kiss from him; here is a kiss from his very mouth. When we formulate the verse in such a way, it somehow brings what it is calling for. It is as if it were going from wish to reality.

Saint Bernard makes a profound commentary about the stage of spiritual life corresponding to the kiss of the Bridegroom. The soul, at the time of its conversion, is granted the privilege of merely kissing the feet of the Lord, as, for instance, in the case of the sinful woman in Luke 7.

Then the soul rises, at a second stage, and kisses the hand, a mark of its friendship, familiarity and intimacy with the Lord, its friend.

But only at the end of the ascent will it be granted the kiss of the mouth, which is that of union with the Bridegroom—a kiss that the soul could not presume to give of its own volition, but that it can expect and receive only from its Bridegroom: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.”

Let’s go to the punchline—again quoting Arminjon:

Some Fathers of the fourth century such as Cyril of Jerusalem and Ambrose show in their Easter catechesis that the ardent wish of the bride—“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth”—is essentially fulfilled in the Eucharist:

“When the body of Christ will touch your lips,” Cyril says to the catechumens, “then the wish of the Bride will be fulfilled for you: let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! The unity of love in the Spirit is then consummated.”

St. Cyril brings us back to the marriage analogy. But, going with the marriage analogy, we know the first consummation is just that: a beginning.

Marriage is a life-long mutual self-giving. The sacramentality of marriage is revealed, par excellence, in marital acts—but not just there! It’s in all the acts of will, of love, of fidelity, dying to self, that make up a lifetime of marriage.

And so with our union with Christ in the Eucharist! Not just one consummation, one ecstasy, but in a lifetime of them—that is how the Eucharist transforms us. We might end with the famous words of St. Augustine, Speaking of the Eucharist: Christian—become what you receive. Amen.

[1] Christopher West, “John Paul’s Distinctive Contribution,” at Catholic Culture ( accessed September 15, 2004
[2] “Eucharist and Gender,” at (, accessed September 15, 2004.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Jordan Aumann, Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition (; previously published by Ignatius Press/Sheed & Ward, 1985), accessed September 15, 2004.
[5] Ibid.
[6] The Cantata of Love (preface by Fr Henri de Lubac, S.J.) published by Ignatius Press (1988) cited at: Gerald Seraphin’s A Catholic Page for Lovers (, accessed September 15, 2004.
[7] Ibid.


Rachel Gray said...

I'd never heard all that about the Song of Songs; that's really cool. :)

gemoftheocean said...

Great sermon.

Martin said...

Very very nice :)

Anonymous said...

wow. BEAUTIFUL. I will never receive the Eucharist on my lips in the same way again! It is truly the kiss of Jesus!