by The Rev. Karl Stevens
“Why didn’t Jesus have sex?” One of my students asked me this some years ago. We were in the middle of cooking dinner for our weekly campus ministry meal, and my thoughts were on the onions simmering in a pan and on gathering the ingredients to make dessert. I was distracted and the answer I gave her wasn’t well thought out.
“Because Jesus’s love is for everybody,” I said. “There’s something about sex that creates a really deep intimacy between just two people, and Jesus’s intimacy is for everyone. He either had to have sex with no one or everyone.”
I don’t think my student was satisfied with this answer. I think she was probably asking a more specific question, “Is sex related to God,” or “does having sex take me out of my relationship with Jesus?” If I had been able to hear these real concerns beneath the question that she did ask, I would have answered differently.
There’s a lovely illumination in the Rothschild Canticles that shows a nun, meditating upon her bed. The Godhead appears above her in the shape of a sun, and one ray of that sun is reaching under the sheets. It’s an image that reflects a late medieval spirituality that sought mystical union with God through erotic imagery. I like it very much, because I think that it has something to teach us. That teaching can be simplified to this – Jesus is with us under the covers. He’s engaged in our intimacy, not absent from it.
My friend Laurie and her friends used to open the hymnal when they were bored in church and add the words “under the covers” to the ends of hymn verses. They giggled at phrases such as “Lo how a rose ever blooming, under the covers,” or “Come thou font of every blessing, under the covers.” But this game was unexpectedly theological, even though they may not have intended it to be. It was probably the only acknowledgement they ever heard in church of the idea that God is present with us in our intimacy. Why is this idea so unnerving that preachers can’t preach on it, and it only gets expressed in the titillation of giggling children?
Imagine the gift that the church could give to people if it only dared to talk about the ways in which God can be present in our intimacy. One of the paradoxes of sex is that it’s bodily, but also out-of-body at the same time. The accumulation of physical sensations leads us into a kind of physicality that we don’t experience in any other way – the scent of a lover, the caress of a hand, the movement of a gaze across the body of a beloved, these things create a kind of altered state, a holistic sense of being present in the body so thoroughly that we transcend it. There is a deep spirituality in sex, and Christians are always called to make Christ part of our spirituality. Sex is intensified when we acknowledge that spirituality and invite Christ’s participation in it. We could begin to define a Christian sensuality, one that acknowledges the godhead as a ray of light that’s with us under the sheets, and then offer this definition to others. Our relatively shallow American conversation about sex could be deepened by this in a way that would help individual lives.
The Episcopal church, like many mainline denominations, has gone through a decade of pain and contention over issues of sexuality. One of the things that make these disagreements so hard is that we lack a language for talking about sex at all, let alone about sexual orientation. But such language hasn’t always been missing from Christianity, as the Rothschild Canticles and other medieval texts show. Perhaps one of the fruits of the debate about sexual orientation is that it’s allowed us to talk about sex more generally, and start articulating real answers to people who ask us simple questions, such as “Why didn’t Jesus have sex?” Jesus the man may not have had sex, but Jesus our Lord and Savior is surely with us under the covers.