Nuptial Imagery in the Gospel

The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.
She is his new creation by water and the word.
From heaven He came and sought her
to be His holy bride.
With His own blood He bought her
and for her life He died. Samuel J. Stone

I often grumble inwardly about the music in contemporary worship. One reason for my dislike of the genre? It’s too emotional for my taste. I think it sounds more like a teenage love song than like a hymn of the church.

This Sunday’s lectionary readings slap me sharply on the wrist and say, “Cut it out.” Or at least I should focus my criticism in the right direction. I have no basis on which to dismiss any worship practice simply because it expresses emotional intimacy with God. God is a husband to his people, and we should love him with our hearts as well as our minds.

In this Sunday’s Old Testament reading, the prophet Isaiah proclaims:

You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.Isaiah 62:4-5

Our reading from Isaiah is not the only time that the prophet uses this kind of language (also 54:5-8 and 62:5). The prophets Jeremiah (2:2, 3:14, 3:32) and Ezekiel (16:8) also use marriage imagery to describe God’s relationship to his chosen nation. The entire book of the prophet Hosea is built on the image of God as the husband of Israel. And the Song of Solomon’s inclusion in the canon is probably because Jews (and later Christians) came to see it as an allegory of God’s nuptial love for his people. At least that’s how both Jews and Christians saw it for more than a millennium. That would make the Song of Solomon the first contemporary praise song.

In the Gospel reading from John 2:1-11, the evangelist calls the miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee a “sign” which revealed Christ’s glory. These passages imply that Israel’s promised wedding renewal has begun with the arrival of Jesus the Messiah. To make it plain, John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the “bridegroom. in John 3:29. [I wrote more about the Coming Wedding Feast in 2014.]

John Bergsma, writing at The Sacred Page, calls our attention to one particular aspect of the Cana narrative.

… the headwaiter called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves good wine first, and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one; but you have kept the good wine until now.” John 2:9-10

Bergsma points out that the Cana narrative makes exactly the same point as John 3:29: Jesus is the true bridegroom. Bergsma writes,

Jesus reveals himself here as the “ultimate Bridegroom.” The responsibility of the bridegroom at these ancient weddings was to provide the wine. We can see that in the text, because when the MC tastes the wine, he immediately calls the bridegroom, assuming that he was the one who procured the vintage. By taking on the bridegroom’s responsibility to provide wine, and doing so in a spectacular style (120-180 gallons of fine French import!), Jesus reveals himself as the Bridegroom, one with whom no other mere mortal can compete. He is the Bridegroom who is both the LORD and the Son of David simultaneously, fulfilling the subtle nuances of the prophecies of Isaiah and of the other prophets who spoke of the renewal of God’s nuptial love for Israel in the future. ….

So in the Wedding at Cana, Jesus reveals himself as the Bridegroom of the Church, our own spiritual spouse. Baptism is the nuptial bath, the Eucharist is the Wedding Feast, where we receive the Body of our Bridegroom and unite his body with ours. Our faith is one of intense intimacy. God loves us like a bride. He “rejoices” in us, takes delight in us, each one of us individually.

Jesus also describes himself as the bridegroom within the synoptic gospels.

And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. Mark 2:19-20 (see parallels in Matthew 9:15, Luke 5:34).

And Jesus’ parables also employ wedding imagery (Matthew 22:1-14, 25:1-22).

The Apostle Paul takes up this picture of Christ as being married to his church in his letters to the congregations in Corinth and Ephesus.

For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. 2 Corinthians 11:2

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. Ephesians 5:25-27

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. Ephesians 5:31-32

And of course the last book of the Bible looks forward to the marriage feast of the Lamb and the coming of the New Jerusalem as the bride of Christ.

Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” Revelation 17:7-9

And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. Revelation 21:2

Within the New Testament, then, Jesus is portrayed as the bridegroom and his forgiven, renewed and redeemed people as his bride.

I hope you have noticed that within these texts, the “bride” is a collective reality. The bride is Israel. The bride is Jerusalem. The bride is the church. The Gospel’s marriage imagery is not, first of all, about Jesus and me; it’s about Jesus and us.

But “I” am a part of “us”. I am a part of the body of believers who have been united to Christ in baptism and who live in union with him at his table. If, as Paul states in Ephesians 5:32, the “one flesh” marriage envisioned in Genesis and affirmed by Jesus is an image of the relationship between Christ and his church, that fact probably means something important about the nature of my personal relationship with God. A mature marriage is not based on emotion alone, but a marriage that lacks even a hint of intimacy is in deep trouble.

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