Hear me out; I’m not trying to be offensive. Several weeks ago, I listened to a podcast from Bruxy Cavey in which he said that we need to reclaim the phrase making love. We shouldn’t be offended by talking about sex; we should be offended by the desecration of sex. I preached one of the worst sermons I’ve ever preached this past Saturday because I couldn’t muster the courage to come out and say directly what I felt called to say: that Eucharist is to the church what sex is to a marriage. Living without either is about equally bearable.
It shouldn’t be blasphemous to speak of Jesus erotically. The reason He couldn’t have sex with an individual person is not because sex itself is inherently dirty and sinful but because He needs to be the object of erotic desire for a whole new humanity of people. Sex done poorly destroys our eros; that’s why it’s sinful. We lose the beauty that true eros awakens. Sex becomes about as meaningful as defecation or any other purely biological urge.
Sex should be as sacred as Eucharist. I honestly think that when Paul talks about marriage being the mystery that reveals Christ’s love for the church, he’s talking not just about the marital relationship in general but specifically the act in which we abide inside of each other and feast on each others’ bodies just like Jesus tells us to abide in Him and feast on His body.
A church without Eucharist is like a marriage without sex. It works, to some degree. But love that isn’t tangibly erotic becomes a rationalist abstraction. In a sexless marriage, love is a duty. It’s making sure that you’re pulling your share of the load, that you remembered to put every appointment on the calendar with the appropriate amount of lead time, that you sit at the table for long enough at dinner, that you buy something appropriately meaningful for the birthdays, anniversaries, and whatever other Hallmark days.
It’s the same when you have a platonic and completely un-erotic relationship with Jesus, when you pride yourself on practicing the kind of “agape” love that has nothing to do with feelings because it’s a rational choice. That’s when you start to worship your doctrinal system instead of longing for the One who told us to eat His flesh and drink His blood. That’s when you measure your spiritual life according to how right you are and not how in love with Jesus you are.
I disagree with the uncritical appropriators of Plato and Aristotle in the Christian tradition, even Thomas Aquinas himself (unless I’ve completely misunderstood him, which is likely). The well-ordered Christian soul is not the temperate Platonic soul in which reason is firmly in control of the passions and appetites. No, we are called to be so much more than rational. We are called to ache with desire for the only one who is worthy of that desire and who is the real, rarely appreciated source of every other object of our desire in creation.
Every time I see beauty in another human being, I am seeing a glimpse of the image of God. The beauty that awakens erotic desire is not just an abstract set of physical features; there is always a personality which animates these features. If we believe what is written about Jesus being the image of the invisible God and the blueprint for the truest humanity, then He is the one whom we are ultimately seeing in the infinite mystery behind every other human face that enchants us. When we finally meet Him face to face, we will see in one person everything that has allured us about the beauty of every person we have ever been attracted to.
Now when we fetishize the physicality of bodies (flesh) abstracted from the personalities (spirit) that animate them, then we are worshiping the creation instead of the creator (Romans 1:25), which kills our eros and turns us into neurotic, shame-terrorized, self-destructive monsters. The more that we give ourselves over to this idolatry, the less capable we are of genuine erotic desire, which becomes to us a PG-13 kind of “earnestness” that we ridicule from the perspective of our wise, cynical debauchery.
I’ve kind of gone all over the place here, but what I wanted to say is that Eucharist really can be as good as sex. When it’s not, it’s for reasons that are analogous to the reasons behind bad sex. The passage I tried to preach on last weekend was 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 where Paul talks about doing Eucharist poorly. If we come to God’s table with hearts that have been hardened by sin or with a lackadaisical, irreverent attitude, that’s like having sex when your mind is elsewhere or even worse when you’re imagining someone else, which turns something God gave us for radical intimacy and vulnerability into a bitter, frightening torture that alienates us even further from each other. We don’t make love then; we make judgment in the same way that we “eat and drink judgment” (1 Cor 11:29) when we partake of Eucharist shamefully.
Sex doesn’t work in a relationship that otherwise lacks tenderness and longing. Both partners have to be filled with desire for each other. And the most frustrating thing about desire is that we can’t just flip a switch and turn it on; it has to be cultivated into us over time in a way that is beyond our direct conscious control. Sometimes we have to engage in artificial, intentional acts towards the other person for a long time before we actually feel genuine desire. Similarly, you cannot experience the full sweetness of the love sowed into you through Christ’s body and blood unless you’ve spent the rest of your days and weeks doing things that cultivate your desire for Christ so that Eucharist is an explosive consummation of that desire.
Of course when we think about eating Jesus’ body and drinking His blood as an erotic act, it does tend to reveal the silliness of the recent gender essentialist movement in neo-patriarchal Christianity. There’s nothing “masculine” about offering your body to be eaten by others. Jesus utterly fails to be a bridegroom according to the complementarian standards in which “a man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants [and] a woman receives, surrenders, accepts.” And yet at the same time, there’s also nothing “masculine” about receiving someone else’s body into my body so that the seeds of His love can grow inside me. So who’s who in the bridal chamber of the heavenly feast? I know saying this will get me into trouble, but there’s something a little bit queer about Eucharist.