In contemporary society, sex has been reduced to an instinctive act, used solely to bring forth pleasure. Even amongst some Orthodox Christians, a life of sex is the gauge by which a person's success is evaluated. Sex is promoted as something extremely less than a mystery because of the faithless understanding of the people. This secular understanding of sex erases the spiritual aspects of this holy union. Consequently, society has managed to break down the Christian understanding of this act, therefore making it acceptable for all to taste outside of marriage. For Orthodox Christians, “sexual relationships outside of the marital relationship violate the inherent nature of things for a person growing toward Theosis.”citation needed
First, it is very important for all to understand and believe that sexual relations in marriage are not the only way to attain theosis. The Orthodox Church honors and highly reveres virginity, the state of Adam and Eve (hereafter referred to as "the protoplasts") before their Fall. Contemporary society, however, gives such a state second-class honor. Celibacy and virginity as even labeled as “unnatural,” despite that, according the patristic tradition it is the natural state of the protoplasts before the Fall. In this essay, the issue of sex will be explained through the lenses of patristic tradition, the Orthodox understanding of the origin of humanity’s sexual nature, the appropriate manifestation of sexual nature through marriage, and the restoration of the fallen sexual nature through virginity.
The origin of humanity’s sexual nature is found in the Old Testament book of Genesis. “God created male and female” (Genesis 5:2).citation needed However, after the fall there was a physical attraction between man and woman, which was supposed to lead to communion and union.
In the patristic tradition, marriage is often connected with the fall of the protoplasts. Athanasius the Great remarks that in God's initial plan for man there was no marriage: “But the transgression of the commandment brought in marriage because Adam transgressed the law that was given to him by God. Adam’s fall, which resulted to death, created the need of putting on 'garments of skin'" (Genesis 3:2). This garment is interpreted as man adapting to the condition that was created after the Fall and does not belong to the pre-Fall condition; it does not belong to the condition of the Kingdom of God. St. Gregory of Nyssa explains what the irrational skin is that man put on. He includes marital relations, procreation, food, growth, old age and death, all of which will not exist in the transformation and assimilation of humanity in the Kingdom of Heaven.
However, this view of marriage is not the only one present in the patristic tradition. St. John Chrysostom, for example, says that "“From the beginning God in His providence has planned this union of man and woman…. There is no relationship between human beings so close as that of husband and wife” (St. John Chrysostom, On Marriage and Family Life). It is noteworthy in this context that Genesis 2:24 ("This is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body" - NAB translation) comes before the description of the fall in Genesis 3.
Until humanity reaches and lives for eternity in the Kingdom of Heaven, God has ordained marriage as a tool for salvation. Marriage is recognized as a sort of adaptation to the new condition of man that was created after the fall of the protoplasts. St. Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians makes recommendations on how people can avoid fornication. According to the Apostle, true sexual relations can exist only within marriage, because sexuality is restored through marriage. In the Patristic tradition and in Holy Scripture this view is upheld, as it is seen in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. “… a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become on flesh.” St. Paul also says,
- “…each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again.” (1 Corinthians 7:2-5)
It is important for one to understand that marriage is not a license for unlimited marital relations but an opportunity for asceticism. The ascetic character of the Christian life also covers the marital life of the believers. Purity, chastity, and even virginity are upheld through marriage according to St. John Chrysostom. Marriage as a communion of persons is not restricted to the level of matter and material sense. Contrarily, matter and material sense serve the communion of the person and in this way they acquire a spiritual content. The prayers of the marriage service clearly address this pastoral issue. The priest prays for the bed of the couple to remain “undefiled.”
Sexual arousal, intercourse, and gratification must not be the priority of the couple; however, it is this act and pleasurable experience, which strengthens the bond of love between the couple, and assists the couple in growing closer to Christ. Fasting, prayer, continence, endurance of suffering is not only for monasticism, but also for married couples. The reason for this is, marriage is expected to move constantly from the carnal to the spiritual perspective. Such progress is only possible within the perspective of the couple’s perfection in Christ. The personal relations of the couple ought to be primarily spiritual in order to preserve and to increase their spiritual communion and union. This is the reason why there cannot exist an independent ethic of sexuality according to the divinely inspired Fathers of the Church.
It is also important when speaking about sexual relations among spouses to speak about the product of this conjugal union. The creation of progeny is a natural consequence of marriage. There is a direct link between spouse relations and child bearing which should not be overlooked with a Italic textlight conscience. Child bearing is the fruit of the union of spouses and an expression of their participation in God’s creative work. St. John Chrysostom in reference the mystery of the conjugal union saying:
- “And how become they one flesh? As if you should take the purest part of gold, and mingle it with the other gold; so in truth here also the women as it were receiving the richest part fused by pleasure, nourishes it and cherishes it, and throughout contributing her own share, restores it back to the man. And the child is a sort of bridge so that the three become on flesh, the child connecting, on either side, each to each… What then? When there is not child, will they not be two? Not so, for their coming together has this effect; it diffuse and commingles the bodies of both. And as one who has poured ointment into oil has made the whole one; so in truth is it also here.”
St. John Chrysostom also says, “He created one from one, and again these two he makes one and thus He makes one; so that even now man is born from one. For a woman and a man are not two but one man” With this great gift of childbearing man becomes the donor of life. Clement the Alexandrian describes the progeny of man as, “man’s creation in God’s image.”
Parallel to the married life, Christian tradition and ethics recognize another equally challenging and rewarding lifestyle. This lifestyle is dedicated and committed to virginity and purity in both aspects, the physical and spiritual. One may see this in the life of Jesus Christ, the proto-type of this lifestyle. Chrysostom says in regards to virginity, “I am persuaded that virginity is much more honorable than marriage, but this does not force me to place marriage amongst those that are dishonorable, but rather I praise it.” The acknowledgment of the value of marriage accentuates the superiority of virginity. Virginity supersedes the law, because it supersedes the fallen nature. A virginal life prefigures the life of the Kingdom of God, where carnal desires and secular cares do not exist.
Virginity brings forth a vibrant life filled with eschatological expectation. Virginal life does not come into contradiction with marriage but it is its par excellence. St. Paul, although he refers to marriage as the “great mystery,” makes plain his preference for virginity, which is what he himself followed. Jesus Christ also says clearly in reference to virginity, is not for all to follow, but those whom this calling has been granted (Matthew 19:11). Choosing virginity places a human person above every social expediency or biological determinism, it underlines humanity’s freedom and absolute value. The human who practices a life of virginity lives as an angel, although having a body, lives like those among the bodiless powers. For this aforementioned reason; the possibilities of perfection following this lifestyle are numberless. On the contrary, the despising of marriage is an insult to the magnitude of virginity. In contrast to marriage, which serves death by brining forth children, virginity raises a barrier to its breaking and interrupting the transmission of the inherited obligation to death.
The goals of virginity and virginal living are not just to remain free of carnal pleasure, but they aim to emancipate a believer from secular cares and straighten the persons’ orientations towards God. Consecrated virginity is a marriage with God that does not involve carnal pleasure. It is solely spiritual. One may say the marital relations of marriage are spiritual too, but they have a carnal aspect. In virginity, the voluntary self-exclusion from carnal pleasure does not aim to mortify Eros in the soul, but to transform it into a godly Eros. This virginity has its ultimate ontological reference to the Triune God.
In conclusion, although the contemporary society has surrounded the faithful with images of sex and has enslaved the culture to it, the Church stands as a fiery column illuminating to all and enticing God-pleasing lifestyles. It is unfortunate contemporary thinking has infiltrated into to the Church, consequently many faithful to label virginity as “unnatural,” when in actuality it was natural to humanity before the fall. Regardless of modern situations, sexual relations are only appropriate within marriage. Marriage sanctifies and unites the carnal bond with the spiritual one, ultimately for the salvation of the couple. Marital relations are blessed because they unite the couple both spiritually and physical. Through this blessed experience, couples can become co-creators with God, grow closer to each other, tame their sexual desires, and ultimately attain Theosis. Although society promotes sexual immorality, namely fornication and adultery, Orthodox Christians must stand firm defending the sanctity of marriage and virginity.
- Stanely S. Harakas, Living the Faith, Minneapolis, Minnesota
- Homily on Colossians, X. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. XII, p. 304
- Homily on Colossians Chapter 12, 5