In the book of Tobit, there is a beautiful scene that expresses the complete contrary of the obscuring movements that I have mentioned in preceding reflections, and that unseals for us a deep sense of reverence and awe before the mystery of sexual intimacy in its God-ordained meaning. It ties together, in a most beautiful way, all of the points that I have sought to make in these reflections.

I quoted Dietrich von Hildebrand at length on the re-formation that wedded love in the sight of God effects in sexual intimacy, and on the primacy of surrender to God that alone makes possible my surrender to a human beloved. I spoke against the many subtle distortions that can creep into the sexual sphere even in the marital embrace, whether in foreplay, or in withdrawal, or in a masturbatory approach to the entire sexual sphere itself. Finally, I tried to “read” the true language of the body and of the sexual embrace itself as God originally intended it, in order to “recapture” the inner virginal meaning of love even in the sexual act, that it may be in some way restored to its original purity and dignity, even in this fallen world. This dignity, after all, which is continually in danger of being obscured by possessiveness and lust, nonetheless still shines, and can truly be healed, integrated, and lifted up by authentic love in the sight of God. It can again become a unique and beautiful expression of the complete mutual self-donation of husband and wife in affirming tenderness within the sanctioning and sheltering love of the Trinity, a very incarnation of and participation in the intimacy of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The book of Tobit expresses all of this with a touching simplicity and radiance. A central scene at the heart of the narrative is the consummation of a marriage. Without giving the full context (though I would recommend you simply read the entire text on your own; it is not very long!), let me give a few situating details. Sarah, the daughter of Raguel, has been married to seven men, all of whom, however, have died on the very night on which they approached her in order to consummate marriage with her. This is because a wicked demon, Asmodeus, has been constantly oppressed her, making it impossible for her to welcome any man into the sacred space of sexual intimacy. She therefore has become an embarrassment and a shame to her people, and she laments her sorrowful situation, asking for death and, if this is not possible, that God intervene to fix a problem that seems totally beyond the resolution offered by any human being.

At the same moment that she makes her prayer to God, in another town one of her father’s kinsmen, a man named Tobit, makes a similar prayer, lamenting his own sorrowful situation in which, in his righteousness, he is nonetheless suffering greatly by rejection, misunderstanding, and physical incapacity (he has gone blind). The text, after recounting the prayers of these two persons, touchingly says: “The prayer of both was heard in the presence of the glory of the great God. And Raphael was sent to heal the two of them: to scale away the white films of Tobit’s eyes; to give Sarah the daughter of Raguel in marriage to Tobias the son of Tobit, and to bind Asmodeus the evil demon, because Tobias was entitled to possess her. At that very moment Tobit returned and entered his house and Sarah the daughter of Raguel came down from her upper room” (Tob 3:16-17). And then we quickly see how this providential plan of God unfolds, in which God sends the archangel Raphael, disguised as a human being, to accompany Tobit’s son Tobias on a journey in which, ultimately, he will be wed to Sarah, will exorcise the demon Asmodeus and consummate his marriage with her, and then, together with her, will return to his own hometown in which he will heal his father of his blindness.

Let me now focus on the scene of the marriage consummation itself, which is tremendously rich in theological significance. It is indeed a kind of distillation of the theological and spiritual meaning of marriage and sexual intimacy in the Old Testament, beautifully looking forward towards the restoration that will occur in the New Testament. And it is saturated with an immense reverence, tenderness, and spirit of chastity that is deeply healing in response to so much of the distortion which is so easily at work in the sexual sphere, obscuring precisely the beautiful image of human love and intimacy that God has designed in the relationship between man and woman. Whenever Tobias comes to the house of his kinsman and learns about Sarah’s situation, he has a conversation with Raphael (who goes by the name of Azariah), which proceeds as follows:

Then the young man said to the angel, “Brother Azariah, I have heard that the girl has been given to seven husbands and that each died in the bridal chamber. Now I am the only son my father has, and I am afraid that if I go in I will die as those before me did, for a demon is in love with her, and he harms no one except those who approach her. So now I fear that I may die and bring the lives of my father and mother to the grave in sorrow on my account. And they have no other son to bury them.” But the angel said to him, “Do you not remember the words with which your father commanded you to take a wife from among your own people? Now listen to me, brother, for she will become your wife; and do not worry about the demon, for this very night she will be given to you in marriage. When you enter the bridal chamber, you shall take live ashes of incense and lay upon them some of the heart and liver of the fish so as to make a smoke. Then the demon will smell it and flee away, and will never again return. And when you approach her, rise up, both of you, and cry out to the merciful God, and he will save you and have mercy on you. Do not be afraid, for she was destined for you from eternity. You will save her, and she will go with you, and I suppose that you will have children by her.” When Tobias heard these things, he fell in love with her and yearned deeply for her. (Tob 6:13-17)

And then, after the engagement and marriage itself, the beautiful scene of the consummation follows:

They took the young man and brought him into the bedroom. As he went he remembered the words of Raphael, and he took the live ashes of incense and put the heart and liver of the fish upon them and made a smoke. And when the demon smelled the odor he fled to the remotest parts of Egypt, and the angel bound him. When the door was shut and the two were alone, Tobias got up from the bed and said, “Sister, get up, and let us pray and implore our Lord that he grant us mercy and safety.” And they began to say, “Blessed are you, O God of our fathers, and blessed be your holy and glorious name for ever. Let the heavens and all your creatures bless you. You made Adam and gave him Eve his wife as a helper and support. From them the race of mankind has sprung. You said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; let us make a helper for him like himself.’ And now, O Lord, I am not taking this sister of mine because of lust, but with sincerity. Grant that I may find mercy and may grow old together with her.” And they both said, “Amen, amen.” Then they both went to sleep for the night. (Tob 8:1-9)

With what immense tenderness does Tobias address her! He calls her “my sister,” just as the Bridegroom in the Song of Songs refers to his beloved as, “My sister, my bride” (Sg 4:9). This is a recognition that Sarah, as a daughter of Almighty God, is first Tobias’ sister before she is his spouse, that she first belongs to God in the virginity of her heart and flesh before she is also entrusted into the care and the love of a man. And thus Tobias approaches her only with a deep trembling reverence and awe, as one approaches a sacred mystery—for that she is!—knowing that he can only do so by the express sanction of God and with his blessing.

Indeed, the very significance of the demon Asmodeus, and his wicked activity in slaying her husbands before they could consummate marriage with her, symbolizes in a profound way the effects of original sin and the ravaging distortions it has wrought in the entire sexual sphere. Yes, did I not say above that the sins such as foreplay are not merely a giving in to the animal or instinctual realm, but rather bear a diabolical, demonic character, which drags man and woman down below the level of beasts? Sexual sins have a particularly twisting effect which truly distorts the human mind and heart, the faculties of the person, such that one becomes incapable of seeing and reading the authentic language of the body in sexual union, and thus indeed begins to lose the ability to see the person himself or herself in all the richness of human life. Or indeed perhaps the problem is first of all precisely because, deep down in the human heart, one has not learned to see and reverence the person, and so when it comes to the explicitly sexual sphere, this blindness is unveiled and makes possible an experience of the sexual act which is radically in contradiction to God’s loving intentions.

Here, in the place which was meant to be, in this temporal world, a profoundly intimate and sacred sphere of mutual encounter and communion between two persons, the forces of evil are unleashed with the most vehemence, forces which radically estrange human hearts from one another and from God in the very drawing together of their bodies. Ah, but here we recognize immediately that almost all of the sins of the sexual sphere do not consist merely in the drawing together of human persons in and through the body, but rather either in the insertion of a “medium” between them that cuts off the totality of their mutual gift, or in a stopping on the level of the body in such a way that one is submerged, with a disordered demonic fascination, on the level of a pleasure-seeking that binds the spirit and drags the person down, such that both the dignity of each person and their openness to God is lost.

Yes, both cases—the insertion of a medium that severs persons from one another and limits the totality of their mutual self-donation, and the mock appearance of intimacy which is actually a subtly veiled form of use—both cases are a giving in to the same lie that has been operative in human life since the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve clothed themselves over in shame and fled in fear from the face of the Lord God. After all, even the “shamelessness” of the disgusting sexual acts which claim to go by the name of “love” and “intimacy” are ultimately a destruction of precisely this reality of authentic love and intimacy. They are fueled by a subtle giving in to shame in the name of shamelessness; they are a separation from the true intimacy that God intended between persons in the very name of communion. They are an inability to see the beauty of the incarnate person in and through the body and to reverence them as they truly deserve in authentic affirmation and loving tenderness, bathed wholly in the sheltering presence of God.

And so the immense beauty of the text from the book of Tobit unseals its beautiful and surprising depth. Tobias arises from bed with his wife, and, tenderly calling her “sister,” invites her to join him in prayer. Together they invite God explicitly into the very space of their love as husband and wife, asking him to shelter, protect, and make possible the very sealing of their marriage in the shared embrace of sexual intimacy. They call for the dispelling of the diabolical force of evil, which is the activity of the realm of estrangement and death operative in the precise place which is meant to be a place of intimacy and life—of the union of the spouses and the radical gift of pro-creation with God! And God alone—God alone can dispel these forces of evil, the diabolical twisting that sin has effected in the sphere of sex, in order to create the space in which true intimacy in mutual self-donation, permeated through and through by the light of the Trinity’s love and the purity of the divine embrace, can blossom.

And so he does. The man and the woman, approaching God together and invoking his name and his presence, surrender themselves totally and unconditionally to him in a surrender that far surpasses all things. And in this very surrender to God, they also find themselves opened to surrender to one another in the sight of God and in the shelter of his embrace. And thus their embrace in the very intimacy of their mutual nakedness is cradled within the prior and abiding embrace of the God who holds them both uniquely, and who has also drawn them together and given them to one another. Thus the intimacy of their embrace as man and woman is held unceasingly within the virginal embrace of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and here, here alone, flowers in its authentic beauty and transparency, for here, from the very beginning, it was meant to blossom, and to rest, in ceaseless and perfect consummation.