By John Sanidopoulos
One of the most confusing issues Orthodox Christians have about Great Lent has to do with the subject of sex between a husband and a wife during this solemn period of repentance and mourning. Some people strongly believe that this forty day period, including the seven days of Holy Week, should be a period of total abstinence from sex in order to completely devote themselves to prayer and fasting, and indulge the flesh as little as possible. Others believe that such a suggestion is total nonsense, that God and the Church have no place in the bedroom, and that sex has no negative impact on the spiritual life. The biblical and patristic teaching of the Church, however, generally falls somewhere in the middle between these two extremes.
The Orthodox teaching about marital sexual union during Great Lent is based on three passages from Holy Scripture.
The first passage comes from the Old Testament book of Exodus. After the Israelites escaped from Egypt and had come to Mount Sinai under the prophetic leadership of Moses, we are told in Exodus 19 that when they arrived at Mount Sinai, the people as a whole were to consecrate themselves to God to be a holy nation that would obey the will of the Lord, which they did agree to, and that after three days they would be privileged to behold from a distance God's awesome presence descend upon Mount Sinai in a frightful and glorious way, yet only Moses would be allowed to go up Mount Sinai for a personal encounter with God. The Israelites had three days to prepare for this, so God commanded them through Moses to do so in the following ways: they were to wash their clothes and abstain from sexual relations.
The second passage also comes from the Old Testament, specifically the first book of Samuel. In 1 Samuel 21 we read about David asking the priest Ahimelech for some bread to eat because he was hungry. However, Ahimelech answered that he had no common bread but only had the holy bread of the Presence, and that he could only give it to him if he had abstained from sexual relations with a woman. When David assured him that he had not been with a woman, keeping his vessel clean and holy, then Ahimelech gave David the sanctified bread to eat.
The third passage comes from the New Testament, specifically the first epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 7:3-6 the Apostle Paul gives some marital advice, specifically when it comes to sex, and he says: "The husband is bound to show benevolence to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but the husband, and he does not have authority over his own body but the wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to fasting and prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your intemperance. I say this according to leniency and not according to command."
What we learn from these three passages in relation to our subject of sex during Great Lent are the following:
1. When we are to enter God's holy and awesome presence, we should consecrate ourselves to Him and present ourselves as clean as possible with self-control and without indulging the flesh, which includes clean clothes (Orthodox Christians similarly put on new clothes when they are newly-consecrated in Baptism) and abstaining from sex for three days.
2. The holy bread, which is a type of Holy Communion, should be consumed only if there has been no sexual relations, assuming Ahimelech meant the night before.
3. A husband and wife should not deprive themselves of sexual intercourse unless it is by mutual consent, so that they may devote themselves to fasting and prayer. When the mutually consented time has passed, they could come together again in sexual intercourse so that they would not be overly tempted by the devil.
The Church has always ideally taught that Christians are to devote themselves to God as much as possible, even to the point of having a constant remembrance of God through unceasing prayer. This should be the goal of every Christian. However, such a goal also requires a period of purification, during which time we should learn to indulge the flesh as little as possible and in every way, not only sexually but in every physical thing that brings comfort and stimulates the passions that prevent us from attaining the purification necessary so that our bodies may become fit temples of the Holy Spirit. Without going into the details, this is essentially what Great Lent is all about, and the final destination of Great Lent is not the Resurrection of Christ, but Pentecost and the feast of All Saints, so that we may also experience the illumination of the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and number ourselves among the saints. We are reminded of this every year during Great Lent since the time we are baptized till the day we die.
However, not all Christians are at the same level nor are they all striving to the same extent to fit into the ideal. This is why the Church has always taught of the ideal of a life devoted to virginity and sexual abstinence, because it allows a Christian to concentrate more on the spiritual struggle, on their purification and illumination, who like warriors do not indulge the flesh and the passions in the time of battle, but concentrate on trying to acquire all the virtues and overcoming everything that will prevent the athlete from attaining the crown of the contest. But the life of virginity has many forms, whether you choose to live as an ascetic alone, in a hut with a few, in a hermitage with a few others, or in a very large monastery with over a hundred others, and they all live different types of lives depending on their spiritual level. One thing is for sure, however, as the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:25, "He who is engaged in ascetic struggle exercises self-control in all things."
Marriage is also blessed by the Church, but this ideal mentioned above is difficult to obtain in marriage, yet it is possible and it is still the goal of marriage. What makes it more difficult in marriage is that we surrender ourselves to another person when we are married, and the fruit of the marital union in the bearing of children requires that we concentrate on nurturing and providing for the family. Just as a monk would submit to his elder in order to cut off his selfish will, so also spouses must submit to one another in order to cut off their selfish will. The household is thus like a little monastery, in its most ideal form. But just as with virgins, marriage also has its different levels and stages. In very rare cases you have marriages where there is a mutual consent to abstain from sexual relations completely. In other rare cases you have spouses who mutually decide to abstain from sex, except when trying to have children; once all the children they want are born they will abstain from sex the rest of their lives. Most couples, however, do not have the resolve and devotion, especially in their younger years, to live with such strictness. These days, most couples can't even agree when to have sex, falling somewhere in between depriving one another and over-indulging.
Having presented in brief the ideals, for most married couples today sex is a difficult subject to discuss. What the Church encourages is mutual consent, whether they could arrive at it themselves or through the aid of their spiritual guide. There are no rules in the Church when it comes to sex between married couples, not even for Great Lent. There are suggestions and principles of guidance to help couples reach their ideal calling, but there are no rules. Except perhaps one. This has to do with Holy Communion.
During Great Lent, sex is a lot like food. Ideally, no food is eaten during the entire period of Great Lent, in imitation of Christ in the wilderness when He was tempted by the devil. This is extremely rare, but it has been done by many holy men and women. Others may only eat once every few days, while others once a day after sunset, and only then something very meager and simple. There are others who will keep the prescription of the Church most suitable for a physically and spiritually healthy fast during Great Lent, which is to abstain from all meat, eggs, dairy, fish and oil. Some however will indulge a bit with oil, or have certain fish, while others may for some reason or another abstain only from meat while consuming everything else, and they may even do this with the blessing of their spiritual guide. Therefore, there is an ideal way to fast during Great Lent, while there is also an acceptable form of fasting that is much less than the ideal. However, some sort of fast is required unless you have some extreme health issue or an indulgence from a spiritual guide.
The tradition of abstaining from sex during Great Lent stems from the fact that the Church encourages more frequent participation in Holy Communion during Great Lent. This is why we not only have Divine Liturgies on both Saturday and Sunday, but also Presanctified Liturgies which ideally should be offered every weekday, but are more often only offered once or twice a week. According to the patristic tradition, when the Apostle Paul speaks of abstaining from sex by mutual consent during a time of fasting and prayer, he meant this as a preparation for Holy Communion. With this in mind, as well as Exodus 19 when couples were commanded to abstain from sex for three days before beholding the presence of God, St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite informs married Christians that it is ideal for them to abstain from sex and to fast for three days before receiving Holy Communion, which seems like the least we should do, for the Israelites abstained and had self-control for three days just to behold God from a distance, while we not only behold the divine presence, but we consume Him! Other Holy Fathers say that less can be required of couples, to the point of allowing only one day of abstinence from sexual relations before receiving Holy Communion.
Therefore, if married couples have any rules about sex during Great Lent, it would be something they arrive at by mutual consent, according to their strength, allowing for some sort of ascetic struggle that they may progress in the spiritual life, but it should most depend on how often they decided to partake of Holy Communion, for which they should abstain at least one day prior. For more specific advice, it is highly encouraged a married couple should seek out spiritual guidance from someone that understands the authentic tradition of the Church, summarized above.