Orthodox Mission – Hyde Park, Chicago

“Let the Bridegroom Go out from His Chamber,” PART 1

So much of our Lenten journey is linked to monastic stories, saints and writings. Sometimes it is hard to figure out the application for us in the world. Asceticism is central and definitive for our spiritual life; it is our sign of the resurrection which follows our Lord Jesus Christ’s resurrection. But the asceticism of the righteous before the resurrection of Christ was manifested in the hope of resurrection that signed and even passed the shadow of the cross over their married lives.

Some of us living in the world may be called to an asceticism which is a very direct sexual renunciation in the world. We are called to non-monastic celibacy. There are many righteous professions which would benefit greatly from the work of people who give themselves over, within a worldly context, to the pursuit of humility, prayer, fasting and final acquisition of dispassion and the pure love of God and neighbor.
However, for those of us who are married and in the world, our way is also ascetic. We still practice abstinence even within sexual relations, not rushing after self-satisfaction, limiting our sexuality to chaste fidelity to a single person—even cleansing our thoughts of the picture of any other, let alone more elaborate daydreams and fantasies or subjection to pornographic images or tantalizing advertisements—which so often are based on very little reality, and are planned to excite an appetite which cannot be satisfied. We do not seek to satisfy every strange and unnecessary fixation. We even must cleanse our minds largely of our picturing and distorting the image of our spouse, objectifying and desiring things, actions, and technical notions of ‘good sex’ which are not focusing truly and in a simple way on the person we love. But this commitment to our husband or wife is blessed because it is in hope of, or at least the ideal image of, all the saving ‘begetting,’ such as we see in the Old Testament, albeit in divinely perfected monogamous form.

Abraham’s hope in his “seed” is a hope in the resurrection, which is fulfilled in the begetting of his son, and even more fulfilled in Christ’s miraculous birth from Abraham’s offspring, and as his offspring. All the righteous figures of the Old Testament, when acting properly—beget not for the enjoyment of sex, or the pride of their own flesh, or just to manifest some kind of union, but in a hope of progeny which is in the deepest sense their self-offering to God. The offspring represent successful ‘union,’ in the physical sense. Not only Abraham offers his son to death in the hope of resurrection, but all the chosen people. This ‘sex’ which is so much greater than sex, is to fulfil the commands of God and hopes in life. We identify through this with sacrifice and the cross. We do not produce the ancestors of Christ, but we produce children that will be in Christ, and joined to that same faith in their lives; children who will be marked and signed with the cross and born from on high in Christ.

This cross in sexual life, points toward the ultimate destiny of all flesh to give up sex. This is why we have to practice through fasting, so that when the husband and wife rejoin, it renews the sense that this is an action which is done with the affirmation of life, and the means to make life, by the grace of God, at its heart. Thus it is also given up, in same the way that we are called to the cross and martyrdom. It is truly a martyrdom to know that the other that one loves, with whom one creates, or with whom one at least repeats and thus affirms the union needed for the creation of life, will die. We affirm our love now both in the physical act of sex, but also in the act of renouncing it in the knowledge that our deeper union will have to be in the spirit when we are parted. Even deeper will our union be when we are reunited in the kingdom of heaven, not for physical, sexual union, but for that perfect union in ‘angelic’ service of continual prayer. We will be united in ways beyond comprehension, in resurrection. The Resurrection is Life which is given once and for all, that can no longer be broken by separation from God, a life which needs to further resurrection through procreation.

So whether we are fasting or we come to the end of the fast, after having passed through the Cross and Resurrection and having our sense of sexuality changed by it, we are affirming life-giving union and the continuation of God’s material creation and witnessing to his saving resurrection. This a small work toward healing of the wound and the curse of our entry into this world of death, when we experience the cross (through fasting) in birth and the means of physically bringing about birth. We affirm life, even where so much of human history, with high infant mortality, terrible violence, and maternal mortality, would give little reason to speak so positively about ‘sex.’ Not just Christ’s birth is a miracle, but all birth is, despite all complications and tragedies that may occur; this is why it is blasphemous against both God and God’s image to demean this in any way through misuse or ridicule of the very importance of this means to make life with the blessing of God.

We wait for the Bridegroom, having put aside our own focus on the physical aspects of being a Bride or Groom, Husband and Wife, so that we can celebrate the perfect marriage of Christ and the Church. We wait for him as servants of the Wedding Feast. We know that as part of the Church, we also, each and every one of us, are united to him, to be raised to life in the New Jerusalem, the eternal Wedding Feast.

to be continued tomorrow.