I have heard Catholics, usually men, wonder whether the reception of Holy Eucharist can be compared to the marital embrace. (Women in contrast seem to find it natural to liken it to pregnancy, to bearing the Christ child within, like Mary.)
This seemingly male intimation has found perhaps its most explicit formulation in some accounts of the “Theology of the Body.” For example, one popularizer has written:
Catholicism sees the whole relationship between God and Man in quasi-sexual terms. John Paul II describes the Eucharist as ‘the sacrament of the Bridegroom and the Bride’ (Mulieris Dignitatem, n. 26). This ‘one flesh’ communion of a husband and wife (Christ and the Church) lies at the heart of our belief and worship. It’s the source and summit of our faith. . . . Oh glorious exchange! Oh wondrous nuptials! Through the Incarnation, Christ has wed Himself to our humanity so that we might be wed to His divinity. And we consummate this marriage, where else? In the Eucharist.
The Eucharist, then, is characterized as the act of consummation of the marriage of divinity to humanity in the Incarnation.
The flip side of the comparison, of course, is that something so problematized as sexual relations in marriage gets analogized to something so unproblematic, in the spiritual life, as Holy Communion. And if the popes have recommended daily reception of the Eucharist, well … it’s an inference that many husbands, to be sure, would like to draw.
Now sed contra, these analogies would seem to be the instincts of the saints. In the hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Eucharist is compared with the pelican mother’s blood, living bread, the hidden divinity of Christ on the Cross, God to be seen face-to-face, and the infant Christ, but not a hint of the marital embrace. Christ’s face only is revealed and that by the lifting of a veil upon our death. A steadfast friend will greet us then, not a lover.
Again, hardly any prayer can be imagined to be more erotic (sensu stricto) than St. Bonaventure’s prayer after communion: “pierce the very marrow of my soul with the delightful, health-giving dart of Thy love. . .may it ever desire to be dissolved and to be with Thee.” Yet the saint instructs us to pray that our souls may ever hunger for the Bread of Angels, and thirst for the Fount of wisdom and knowledge – not yearn for a quasi-marital joining.
Upon reflection, it makes sense that, whatever one’s subjective imaginations, the Eucharist is called food and not profitably compared with sex.
First of all, there is no such thing as a “yearning for sex.” In reality, by nature, and originally, there is the desire of union with a man for a woman, and with a woman for a man. As the sexes are complementary, so there are two complementary urges. Hence, it’s an illusion to imagine that there could be a common and shared desire for the Eucharist, along these lines, among male and female Christians. And yet men and women hunger and thirst in the same way.
Again, the marital embrace is of its nature exclusive, but the Eucharist embraces and unites all who partake of it. St. John Chrysostom wrote, “to him we unite ourselves, and we are made one body, one flesh.” Tellingly, the saint does not emphasize that we are made one flesh with the Lord, but rather with one another (although to be sure the one is the reason for the other). One might wonder whether the comparison with the marital embrace doesn’t attract us precisely because, in contrast, it is inherently individualistic.
Again, the consummation of marriage in the marital embrace occurs only once. If one had to say what suited the nature of the marital embrace more, “once” or “daily,” surely it would be once. Once consummates a marriage; once can beget a child. Sin gives witness also: one illicit embrace proves disloyalty and constitutes adultery; while one chaste embrace is a sufficient pledge of fidelity. A woman’s body has its own receptivity which changes over a month. And yet: “give us this day our daily bread.” Each of us needs three meals each day.
Again, children surely are as capable of grasping the mystery of the Eucharist as well as adults – insofar as any of us can at all. But food makes sense to them – how could sex possibly do so? The Virgin Mary and any virgin would presumably have nothing to do with the imagery of sexual embrace. Too many of us ought to be innocent when we are not and, for those, the sexual embrace can be bound up with compunction, regret, and shame.
Then consider the incidents of consuming food. Food is “completely given” as corporeal, because it’s consumed and “lost” in the reception and gift. But despite the language of “total gift of self” no one’s body is given this way in the marital embrace.
Indeed, one might argue that, if the image of food already captures the fact that He poured himself out for us completely, then there’s nothing lacking in the image, nothing further to be represented by matter to our senses. “O divine food, Sacrament of love, when wilt Thou draw me entirely to Thyself?” St. Alphonsus Liguori asks, “Thou has nothing left to do in order to make Thyself loved by me.” In the order of final causes, it’s the very purpose of food to reveal the sacrament.
The comparison with sex, then, does not add but detracts. “In order that he might not be separated from us even by death,” Liguori explains, “he would leave us his whole self as food. . .giving us to understand by this that, having given us this gift of infinite worth, he could give us nothing further to prove to us his love.”
“When we think of this love,” St. Mary Magdalen of Pazzi would tell her novices, “we cannot pass on to other thoughts, but must stop upon love.”
*Image: The Last Supper by Valentin de Boulogne, 1625–26 [The MET, New York]
You may also enjoy:
St. John Paul II’s Worthiness to Receive (from Ecclesia de Eucharistia)
Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy’s Politicizing the Eucharist