Monday, January 18, 2010

Bride of Christ

In 1974, when Avery Dulles published his famous book, Models of the Church, it became mandatory reading for every Theology 101 course. As the title suggests, the book explores many of the common images and paradigms used to explain the mystery of the Church. They included the Church as Institution, Mystical Communion, Sacrament, Herald, Body of Christ and Community of Disciples. If I may be so bold as to criticize such a classic work of theology, I feel that there is one important model which Dulles fails to consider. That is, the Church as the Bride of Christ.

Already in the Old Testament, the relationship of God with his people was described in marital terms. The act of circumcision as a symbol of the covenant was taken from the marriage rituals of ancient Near Eastern societies. Today's first reading from the prophet Isaiah echoes the theme:

As a young man marries a virgin,
your builder shall marry you;
And as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride,
so shall your God rejoice in you.

In keeping with this metaphor, idolatry was considered akin to infidelity (e.g. Is.1:21) and sin described as harlotry (e.g. Jer.3:1).

On the other hand, the messianic age when God would be forever reconciled to his people was described in terms of a wedding banquet (e.g. Is.25: 6).

The New Testament picks up this theme of the union between God and his people as a marriage. However, Jesus is identified as the bridegroom and the Church as his bride. That Jesus understood himself in this way is evident from his response to the Pharisees on why his disciples did not fast: "How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? (Mk 2: 19). Furthermore, many of the parables he told showed that he conceived of the end times in terms of a wedding feast (eg. the parable of the virgins in Mt. 25 and the parable of the king and the wedding guests in Mt. 22).

The early Christians, in the light of Jesus' death and resurrection, developed the theme even further. Saint Paul articulates this mystery in his second letter to the Corinthians when he writes: "I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him (2 Cor.11:2). However, it is in the book of Revelation that the Church as Bride of Christ is given its most explicit treatment in the context of the end times. When the enemies of God have been vanquished and the blood of the martyrs avenged, all heaven erupts in a song of praise, "For the wedding feast of the Lamb has begun and his bride is prepared to welcome him (Rev.19: 7). And then Saint John reports this mystical vision: "I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully adorned to meet her husband (Rev. 21: 1-2).

Understanding the Church as the Bride of Christ and the reconciliation of God with his people as a wedding banquet sheds much light on Saint John's story of the Wedding Feast of Cana. That Jesus' first miracle (or "sign" as Saint John calls it) takes place at a wedding feast is not an insignificant fact. Though he is not literally the bridegroom, he is presented as the one who, by turning the waters used for ritual cleansing into the wine of the new covenant, brings to completion the reconciliation prefigured in the Old Testament prophecies.

Neither is it insignificant that Jesus responds to his mother's request by saying, "My hour has not yet come". For Jesus, his "hour" is the cross: "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.... Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say, 'Father, save me from this hour?' No, it was for this very reason that I came to his hour." (Jn. 12 23 & 27). This ties the wedding feast at Cana with Jesus' death on the cross. The first sign of the changing of water to wine was so that his glory could be revealed and the disciples could believe in him. The hour of Jesus' glory in the gospel of John is precisely the cross through which all people will believe in him: "But I, when I am lifted up, will draw all men to myself" (Jn. 13: 32).

Through the cross, Jesus consummates the marriage between God and his people. Jesus' last words from the cross are, "It is finished" (Jn.19:30), which is translated in Latin as "Consummatum est" or "It is consummated". And when the soldier pierces Jesus' side, blood and water rush out (Jn. 19:34). The blood and water (an echo of the water and wine of Cana) are understood to represent the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist. Just as God created Eve from a rib taken from Adam's side, so God created the Church, the Bride of Christ, from Jesus' side.

Reflecting on the Church as the Bride of Christ offers a dimension to our understanding of ourselves as believers which no other model be it Sacrament, Herald or Mystical Communion can convey. Simply put, Christ loves the Church. It explains why he did so much to deliver us from sin and works so diligently to preserve us in his grace. Furthermore, no other model better exemplifies the future glory that awaits the Church when God will be forever united with his people in a bond of love which can never be broken.

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