By: Fr Mike van Heerden; with additions from Franci Williamson


It has been said that the best way to kickstart anything in life is to dive straight into the deep end. But when it comes to sex, the deep end is not something that we should be haphazardly launching ourselves off into. No! We need to go back to basics – lumo armbands, the big rubber duckie, flippers and goggles, the works.

You see before we can answer any complicated questions we need to ask the basic ones: What is sex? Not the physical action – we all have imaginations – but rather what is it actually about? What is it meaning? It’s place in the world?

Sex certainly has a place and a right place. Like cake batter – you can eat it before and it’s most certainly yummy and you enjoy it – but there is far greater enjoyment when you wait for the fullness of the cake; baked, iced and decorated. Of course anyone can have sex whenever. But in order for it to be fully experienced and enjoyed; the right context – the context for which it is intended – must be had. So let’s get a bit of context and actually discover the joy of what it is that we are actually swimming for.

“How beautiful you are, how pleasing – my love, my delight! Your very figure is like a palm tree – your breasts are like clusters. I said: I will climb the palm tree, I will take hold of its branches” (Song of Songs 7: 7-9)

The idea of covenant is central to the Christian faith – the entire Old Testament is just the story of the progression of the Old Covenant between God and His people. We often hear that Christ is the “Covenant made new” and fulfilment of the Covenant. So what is this thing?

A covenant is an agreement. It is a contract and a promise. But where most contracts involve an exchange of goods (my labour for your money etc) a covenant is like a blood pact (huh!?!). We are making the strongest promise imaginable and we are essentially creating a union of blood. Once I have made a covenant with someone we become family. It is through a covenant that Creator and creatures become Father and children. They become “flesh of my flesh and blood of my blood”. Where else have we heard these rather incredible words? At a wedding of course. Marriage is one of the most beautiful examples of a covenant; where two completely unrelated people become family and are called to become one flesh. How exactly do they do this? How does the new couple seal their covenant, consummate (Latin for brought to completion) it? Well, through the nuptial act – through sex.

Sex can only really properly be understood in this light. To understand sex we need to understand its purpose – and the purpose of sex to “finish” and “complete” the marital bond. Just like in the past a marriage wasn’t considered complete or valid until sex, sex is not valid until marriage. They go hand in hand. How can sex not be valid? Precisely, as said, to enjoy it fully – you must experience it in the right context. Sex is the consummation of the love felt between two people – the summus, high point, the accomplishment of the commitment. It is the powerful means that “seals the deal” that makes this person one with you. And can this only happen in a marriage? Actually yes. There is a method and an order to.

We see repeatedly in the Old Testament the form that a covenant takes. That in order to become one family, there must be three elements present. In the Latin Dedicatio – Oblatio – Communio: dedication; oblation and communion.

We see this order in Christ’s new covenant for us. The dedication, the promise and commitment, we see at the last supper, where Christ dedicated all that He was and had done to the Father for our salvation. He promised everything to us. Now a promise isn’t enough, we need to follow through and that is the oblation, the offering and giving. There is no greater giving of oneself than one’s very life and on the cross, we have the purest oblation of any kind: Christ giving His very human life so that we could be saved. His communion, the union and exchange of intimacy, is realized each time we take part in the Eucharistic celebration. As St Paul says: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes” (1 Cor 11: 26).

Human union and the nuptial covenant follows exactly the same order. On the day of their marriage, the couple makes their dedication to: “Love and honour each other all the days of their lives”. Each little sacrifice- each little death to selfishness – is what makes up the oblation, the giving of their lives for each other. As Christ reminds us on the eve of His passion: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. Sexual intimacy is then the third element of the union of marriage – the deep communion between wife and husband that expresses and makes present their covenant of love and enables their lives to be vivified by that love. As the prophet says in the Songs of Songs above: “I will take hold of its branches”. In taking hold of each other, they are taken up into the love of God who gives His life so that we can live. As they become one flesh – their souls are united in this deep communion and they are able to plummet the very source of their existence which is the call to love and be loved.

This is the very heart of what sexual intimacy should be. To have sex is to make love. Like the cake batter, in order to appreciate and encounter all of its greatness, we need to wait for its right place. Sex isn’t the be all and end all of human excitement and experience. When seen in context, sex is only part of what we are actually aiming for, it is one expression of that deep communion, that intimacy for which we are all made. But in order for that communion to be meaningful, there needs to be commitment and a totally offering of self first. Although often in relationships it feels like these are present – and in some ways most certainly are – they can only properly and fully be realised once you have promised yourself for life. Only once you have given your everything and become “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”, once your covenant is put in place, can lovemaking be had to the full. And really, who wants to have anything if they can only have it in part? Who wants to have some of something when, with a little patience, we can have all of it?


About the AuthorFr Michael (1)

Fr M J van Heerden

I have been ordained thirty years this December and I can only thank God for a wonderful life as a priest. I have been able to travel because of the academic posts I have held – study further at the Catholic University of Leuven – minister in parishes as diverse as Wynberg, Atlantis, Malmesbury, Plumstead and Durbanville. What I particularly like is to have a mixture of academic work and pastoral experience – the former keeps the gray cells stimulated and the latter keeps one grounded and in touch with life. My bucket list includes learning Xhosa, travelling to southern Spain, Madeira and Vietnam and hopefully reaching my 50 year anniversary of priesthood.


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