Liturgy and Sexuality: The Lord Be With You

"The Lord be with you."
"And also with you."

These words are a beginning.

These words in the liturgy gather us to attention, and prepare us for an encounter.

Sometimes spoken at the beginning of worship to quiet a room before prayer, they’re most well-known as the opening words of the Eucharistic liturgy.

I was formed in a tradition that says our worship becomes a school for our ethics. How we move through the liturgy helps us to become a certain kind of person in the world.

It’s not that we worship so that we can become ethical, using worship as a tool for our betterment, but rather that in the process of worship, we are formed more in the likeness of the one we worship. In loving, we become more like the Beloved.

The past few posts on sexuality have felt like some important throat-clearing, and hopefully some opening of space for deepening conversation about what it could mean for sexuality to be a vibrant aspect of faith, working in tandem with our spirituality. What could it mean for our loving with the body to be a spiritual discipline of sorts?

And further, how can we come to see our sexuality not as a compartmentalized piece of us, separate and private from the rest of our living, but come to understand ourselves as integrated beings, where our sexuality is one particular expression of other values we are living toward in all our relationships?

I don’t mean to suggest that every relationship be explicitly sexualized; actually, just the opposite – that the act of sex itself, the genital expression, is reserved for committed relationships where those values can take on a particularly embodied rendering far deeper and more intimate than what we practice in the majority of our human interactions. And yet, our sexuality has expressions beyond sex as the impulse to connect meaningfully with others or create beauty in the world whether through art or other expression. Sexuality is a vitality which marks our drive to live and have lives which touch other lives.

But often we do live as if our sexuality is compartmentalized, and much happens in secret which ends up marked by shame. If the #metoo movement has taught us anything, it’s that we are in something of a crisis of sexuality. And the church isn’t immune to it, simply on account of being the church. Sadly the victimizers show up in Christian leadership as well, and victims are made in our congregations.

We can’t fix everything. Oh that we could. But while the #metoo conversation happens outside the church, it needs to happen within the church as well – not only in addressing abuses, but primarily in constructing a sexual ethic that goes beyond the rather shallow and divisive conversations around purity culture or LGBTQ debates.

We need more than this, and often I wonder if our obsession with these two aspects of sexuality and the church are our limited way of saying there’s more work the church needs to do about sexuality in general. My fear is that we haven’t done a good job of teaching our people how to be faithful and how to keep promises (or even make them to begin with), not just in our partnered romantic relationships, but even in friendships and communities. The struggle with sexual character is in part reflective of this more general failure. We’re struggling across an entire swath of relationships, and that struggle doesn’t stop at the bedroom door so to speak.

If the way I was formed, to see liturgy and worship as a school for faithfulness, has been formative in other aspects of our lives, then I have to think that in it, we might find connections between liturgical practices and words, and how we live with one another in relationship – from community, to friendship, to partnered life.

Before I go on, it feels really important to be clear about a few things I’m taking for granted, so that you don’t have to guess or be broadsided later.

First, my work is inclusive. In both congregations where I spend the most time, I’m surrounded by couples in all configurations – same sex, same gender, heterosexual, love between trans people, so on. These are my beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.

Second, while I hold marriage to be deeply important with larger implications for the church, I’m also not blind to the fact that many in my life are partnered, and those partnerships are marked by sexual love which is often deeply meaningful and life-giving. If that’s you, this is for you too.

Third, I love people in my life who have chosen celibacy as their faith commitment, and yet are still sexual beings. And I have countless friends who aren’t meaningfully partnered in any way, and also may or may not be sexually active. If this is you, I’m here with you – this is my reality too. You’re welcome here.

Whoever you are, the Lord be with you.

The Lord be with you. What are we saying in these words?

I recently visited a church near my hometown, South Bend City Church, which has as one of its guiding mantras, “everyone an icon.” By this they mean that every person is created in the image of God. As their pastor Jason said in last week’s sermon, “you’ve never looked into the eyes of a human being who wasn’t a bearer of the divine image.” To recognize this is the first step to living justly in relationship.

In saying, “The Lord be with you,” I sense this kind of iconic encounter. These words acknowledge the presence of one another, and presence of the community gathered. To say this to another is a blessing, the expression of hope that the other might experience God’s presence, but also a willingness to be that blessing, to stand in the place of Christ and be an icon of God. Here I think also of the tradition of saying “namaste” in yoga practice, which means “the divine in me bows to the divine in you.” “The Lord be with you” is not only a blessing, like “may the Lord be with you,” but is also a daring proclamation of the image of God in another: “I see that the Lord is with you.”

But more than recognition of the image of God, the word icon also implies prayer – namely, the practice of praying with icons, in which the icon becomes a window into the divine, a vessel which we pray through to God. Icons are not simply beheld, but are read. They are studied, looked into, encountered with curiosity and expectation.

I wonder if you have ever been looked at this way.

In much the same way that “The Lord be with you” is the beginning of the eucharistic encounter, seeing and attraction are the beginning of any relationship, communal or friendship or romantic. Something within us is drawn to something within another, and often this drawing is a reaction to having seen.

Yet being seen isn’t always an experience of being read for the divine within. There are attractions and desires that are holy and good, which offer dignity and build up, and these can even be sexual attractions and sexual desires. Rowan Williams, in his essay “The Body’s Grace,” argues for the importance of desires that build up. He says, “The life of the Christian community has as its rationale – if not invariably its practical reality – the task of teaching us this: so ordering our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy.” We were made to know that we are desired and wanted.

But the pornographic gaze ignores not only the divine within, but the human as well, reducing the seen to an object. These are eyes that take, not eyes that give. Instead of knowing we are an occasion of joy, we come to know we are the occasion of lust, and the unwanted gaze can make us feel that something important is being stolen from us.

One way of talking about holy relationship is to say it could be the sustained attentive practice over the long-haul of reading through the other the presence of the divine, so that we might see into and ascertain God. Augustine, in On Christian Doctrine, argues for this kind of iconic loving of God through the loving of another, insisting that to love a human being rightly is to love them for God’s sake.

To press into this more deeply, while sex can be the most complicated, sometimes painful experiences we live, it also can be the most delightful, an experience of being at home with another and oneself, and when conditions are right, an experience which is the closest approximation of heaven we might experience for now. In it, we are naked, we are deeply known, with the capacity to both give and receive rich pleasure. It’s because of this that sex often becomes misplaced as an idol. Yet to approach embodied love with iconic sensibilities is to come close to the divine presence in another, and perhaps experience the pleasure of nearness to God.

In Philip Sherrard’s essay, “The Sexual Relationship in Christian Thought,” in Christianity and Eros he says, “We tend to distinguish between the love of God and the love of one person for another – to distinguish between agape and eros – and to regard the second as a rather debased form of the first, if not directly opposed to the first and only indulged at the expense of the first.” He goes on to say that in sacramental love, it’s a false distinction.

I think there are times the distinction works – that there is erotic desire devoid of agape love, which feels carnal and stripping of dignity. But at its best, sexual love holds the erotic and the worshipful together as one, so that both partners are brought closer to one another and the divine, through the experience of one another’s pleasure and vulnerability.

And here, I return to a note I made earlier – namely, that sexual love is often a particularized microcosm of the ways we’re loving anyone in our lives: our neighbors, our friends, our family, our communities. Sex has a way of revealing to us where our desires are misguided, perhaps selfish instead of celebrating the divine in another. If we are loving poorly in other relationships, this is likely to be evident in our sexual one too. Similarly, sex is a formation of our character in all relationships; as we become more capable of loving selflessly in vulnerable acts of sexual intimacy, this deepened capacity for love is spread to our community around us. Love begets love.

The Lord be with you.

In some ways and with the right kinds of commitments to flourishing, wholeness, and stability, sex can also be a kind of liturgy, a work of two people toward the worship of God, where the Christ in me encounters the Christ in you through the sharing of bodies. This work of love isn’t only for the sake of the two, but is for the sake of loving God, who returns that love to the community.

To consider “The Lord be with you” in reference to sexuality is to acknowledge this – to set our relationships within the context of the church, a broader community which supports our promises with other practices of faithfulness, and benefits from the love two can share. Exclusive love between two becomes by mystery and grace inclusive of the body of Christ.

But beyond just our partnered love relationships, this posture of deference, recognition, and blessing in these opening words of the liturgy are for the other relationships in our lives too – for encounters with our enemies, our families, our friendships, our neighbors. They don’t merely or even specifically form us for sexual love, but for all love. We can be icons for one another, turning our faces toward one another with deep attention and awe, and with prayerful expectancy of divine presence, and with honor for the beloved person bearing the image.

The Lord be with you.

 

 

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