Christian Community (6): The Church as Bride of Christ

NewJerusalemAnother biblical image of the Church is the Bride of Christ. Paul admonishes husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of the water of the Word so as to present the church to him in splendor, without a spot or winkle of any kind.” (Eph. 5:25-27) Here, Paul interweaves the image of spouse with that of the family as a whole with its hierarchical aspects. Before taking too much umbrage at the apparent subordination of women to men in these verses, it is important to note the Christological dimensions of these admonitions. The husband is the head of the woman as Christ is the head of the Church. That is, the husband must first subordinate himself to Christ before he can properly function as the head of anybody else. By saying that Christ gave himself up for his bride, the Church, Paul makes it clear that subordinating oneself to Christ means subordinating oneself to the self-giving of Jesus, a self-giving that took him to the cross. This doesn’t leave any room for dominating anybody in a domineering manner. Indeed, although parents have authority over children, Paul cautions against “provoking them to anger.” (Eph. 6:4)

In Revelation, the seer sees a new Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Rev. 21:2) This deepens the Christological dimensions of the bridal imagery for the Church. Throughout this book, the seer sees imperial violence for the destructive force that it is and its inevitable collapse under its own violence. Meanwhile, although the Lion of Judah was announced to make an appearance, presumably to exact divine vengeance, which is what most people expect and hope for, what actually appears is “a lamb appearing as if it had been slaughtered.” (Rev. 5: 5-6) That is, just as Jesus confounded the peoples’ expectations of what kind of Messiah they would get, the risen Christ confounds these expectations yet again, which is precisely what the risen Christ died when he ascended to Heaven and sent the Holy Spirit.

There is a paradox in this bridal imagery because, although  spouses are fundamental to families, they share an intimacy that other members of the family simply cannot share. In fact, the fecundity of the spousal relationship, that most usually manifests in producing children but can take many other forms for nurturing other people, requires the unsharable intimacy at its core. I have noticed acts of intimacy among spouses that go beyond physical acts of affection that show the depth of their union, such as sharing food off each other’s plates at meals. This is something I notice when I am the table server at the monastery.

The Church, as Bride of Christ, is foreshadowed by Hosea who married a prostitute and remained faithful to her throughout her infidelities. The prostitute, Gomer, stands for unfaithful Israel and for unfaithful us to this very day. More positively, the Church as bride is also foreshadowed in the Song of Songs where the playful hide-and-seek games of the lovers celebrates the hide-and-seek games we play with God and God plays with us.

The stronger paradox of the image of the Church as Bride of Christ is that every member of the Church shares the marital intimacy with God. That is, we share marital union with Christ and with each other. In this way, the image of the church as “living stones” is personalized in a deep union through mimetic resonance with one another in Christ’s Body. It is this image we see acted out at the Wedding at Cana where Jesus is the bridegroom and we are the Bride. The deeper we move into brideship with Christ, the more subordinationism among humans melts away and we experience our fundamental equality and unity in Christ. Within this union, Christ is the head of each and every one of us in an intimacy beyond our imagining even at times we experience in in fleeting moments.

See also: Christian Community (3), Mimetic Resonance, Strange Wedding

Strange Wedding

wineTableFeast1The Wedding at Cana of Galilee is a beautiful story of celebration. The only problem is the story makes no sense, perhaps because celebration is infinitely beyond sense.

Foremost among the oddities is the scarce presence of the groom and no mention of the bride. The effect of Jesus being at the center of the story and no bride mentioned has the effect of putting us into the position of the bride of Jesus as Isaiah said: “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. (Is. 62:5)” The scarcity of wine (probably humanly created—Cana was a poor village—looks ahead to the scarcity of bread in the wilderness. Both times, Jesus counters scarcity with extravagant abundance.

The six stone jars are supposed to hold water for purification. That would be a lot of purity, but the jars are empty. Well, purity laws and rituals tend to divide humans arbitrarily into clean and unclean. That is, purity always creates a scarcity of purity, especially of pure people. Quite the opposite of God’s marriage with all God’s people.

The water with which the attendants fill the jars suggests baptism, as does the water at the well in Samaria, another story with nuptial overtones. The wine is a festive drink but it also looks toward Jesus’ death as does the bread in the wilderness. The story of Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple, the event that drove the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem to plot the death of Jesus, further suggests that the water and wine refer to the Passion.

Dostoevsky makes powerful use of this story in Brothers Karamazov. The great staretz (spiritual father) Zossima has just died. When his corpse follows the normal course of nature and creates a stink, many of the people are scandalized, including Zossima’s youthful follower, Alyosha. Late at night, the stricken Alyosha  is praying in the hermitage where the body lies in state. Another monk is reading the story of the Marriage of Cana. The room expands to take in a vast celebration. Then Alyosha sees Zossima rejoicing. The elder says to him: “We are rejoicing . . . we are drinking new wine, the wine of great joy. See how many guests there are?” “He [Jesus] became like us out of love, and he is rejoicing with us, transforming water into wine, that the joy of the guests may not end. He is waiting for new guests, he is ceaselessly calling new guests.”

Cana was a backwater in a backwater, a place of no significance. The temple in Jerusalem was the center of Jewish religion and culture. As with the outcasts at the manger, the party is in the backwater, not the center. In this new center, Jesus calls all of us to the party, the party that transforms the body and blood of Jesus into bread and wine of feasting and rejoicing, a party open to all of us. . Jesus has indeed saved the best wine until last.

See blog posts Humanly Created Scarcity, Divinely Created Abundance, and Outcasts at the Manger and article Violence and the Kingdom of God for more comments on Brothers Karamazov.