There are now a plethora of shows on TV and movies that propagate the idea that sex has to be thrilling. Flowing from that, there is also the concomitant assertion that a relationship must be built on a foundation of fun and excitement. Should the fun and excitement die, the relationship must die with it, and the level of excitement that is experienced in carnal congress is often used as the barometer for the health of a relationship more generally.
In a certain way, it is understandable for Christians to buy into this logic when talking about marital love. If the dramatic emotional roller coaster that is the relationship between God and Israel, as the prophet Isaiah (62:5) puts it, is paralleled to the relationship of a “husband rejoicing over his wife”, it should seem quite logical to assume that the joys of marriage will include the joy of the sexual embrace.
But does the joy of sex necessarily equate to sexual “excitement” or “fun”? A number of Christians seem to think so in varying versions of advocacy of keeping sex within marriage, on the grounds that sex becomes better when it is kept within the marital institution. In other words, married couples get more exciting sexual experiences. But is this the correct conclusion to draw? According to John Paul II’s work on marital love, the marital state is seen as an analogue to the ultimate reality which is God’s relationship with his creation (exemplified by Israel). Is it possible that by positing excitement as the fulcrum of any relationship, the ultimate reality is made to conform with the analogue, rather than the other way round?
In the writings of John Paul II, the sexual act is meant to analogue the fullness of the relationship between God and Israel, and one aspect of the relationship that is often ignored and can be drawn from the Old Testament is the prophetic (we can get a clue from the fact that the marital analogue is communicated via the prophets like Isaiah and Hosea). Sex, according to John Paul II, also has a prophetic function. The spouses prophecy to one another with their bodies in the marital embrace, not in terms of telling the future (it is important to note that biblical scholars never talk about prophecy in those terms), but in terms of a present affirmation that parallels God’s covenantal love of Israel.
In the old Testament, the prophets are often sent in times when Israel manifested her infidelity to God, and thus her utter brokenness. If one looks carefully at the prophetic writings, particularly at Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea, one theme that the prophets regard as central is not condemnation of Israel’s infidelity, although that is indeed mentioned. What is central, and thus greater than the infidelity of Israel is God’s love for Israel. In spite of her brokenness and prostitution, God via the prophets remind us that Israel is still worth being with. Thus, while it is Israel that looks for excitement in things other than God He, like the husband depicted by Hosea, still remains with her and rejoices over her in spite of the lack of any excitement whatsoever. Whilst Israel seems rather ordinary (indeed less so), God’s faithfulness is manifest precisely in that ordinariness.
This prophetic function of sex provides an important key to understanding marital love, for the marital act is not meant to instil sexual excitement, although it can do that from time to time. Instead marital love, if we understand John Paul II’s writings correctly, is meant to affirm the spouses even when sexual excitement is not generated. In a way analogous to the prophetic theme of God remaining to rejoice over Israel even when she no longer worthy of any joy, so too does the marital act prophecy to each spouse that each shall remain with the other even when they no longer instil excitement or even when they are not worth remaining with.
Postscript: As an appendix, readers might be interested in a guest post on the topic of the consumerisation of marriage, written for the blog of the Catholic news resource CathNews.