Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Christ the Bridegroom: #3

**This is the third of a three-part reflection on "Christ the Bridegroom." The essay was guest posted by a close personal friend of mine who was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church. This section begins with an Orthodox Hymn for Holy Tuesday.**
I see your bridal chamber
All adorned, my Savior,
But I have no wedding garment,
That I may enter therein.
Make radiant the vesture of my soul,
O Giver of Light, and save me!

There remains one aspect of our marriage with Christ, however, which seemed to elude my understanding. Namely, if our relationship to Christ truly feels romantic love for us, and if this relationship is a true marriage, where is its physical consummation?

After all, the very reason that sexual temptation had been so hard for me to resist had been because I didn’t feel that I could have any sort of physical connection with God the way I could with another human being. By the point at which I was asking this question, I had already come to accept that my longing for physical union could not be separated from my desire for spiritual and intellectual union as well, but my relationship with God seemed only capable of existing on the spiritual and intellectual planes. How, then, were all three parts of my being to be united in Christ?

The answer to this question is more obvious if you come from a Catholic or Orthodox background.

It's the Eucharist.

In the sacrament of Holy Communion, we are literally partaking in (taking into ourselves) the Body of Christ. His flesh becomes one with our own, just like the physical consummation of a marriage. In that sense Christ’s Passion on the cross literally merges with His romantic passion for us, and the very act of physical union (the Eucharist) becomes in itself salvational.

As I said before, this truth is perhaps more intuitive if you come from a faith background that believes in transubstantiation because you are literally consuming the Body of Christ, but it makes sense on the metaphorical level as well. In fact even though the great English reformer John Wesley saw communion as purely a symbolic act, he still felt that partaking in communion had the power to save souls and thus allowed it even to non-believers.

If Christ is our lover, however, and we are His bride, doesn’t it follow that we should be in love with Him in the romantic sense as well? I realize that this may be especially strange for men to contemplate, but the obvious answer to that rhetorical question is yes. At first this seemed nearly impossible to me because I had never thought it appropriate for me to be romantically in love with God. To me God was a father, savior, brother, priest and confessor, but I had never before pictured him as my husband and lover in the fullest sense of the words. I had never before considered what it would look like to be in love with him in the same sense as a human lover.

That was when I had the epiphany that Christ is the ultimate romantic hero that I had always dreamed of meeting. He has all the virtues I yearn for in a soul mate, and He is passionately in love with me. Who could ask for anything more?

Once I had accepted the full implication of my bridehood, I began to see the evidence of Christ the Bridegroom all around me, and to understand it more fully. The Song of Songs with all its fleshly, passionate imagery—a book whose spirituality seemed vague at best to me—suddenly not only made perfect sense, but also became one of the most beautiful books in the Bible. It also proves that God has been our lover since the beginning of time, and that Christ’s Passion and his role as the Bridegroom is simply fulfillment of a relationship clearly lined out in the Old Testament.

Looking at my own faith tradition, I realized that the Orthodox Church places such value on the image of Christ as the Bridegroom that they dedicate a whole day in Holy Week (Holy Tuesday) exclusively to that aspect of Him. In fact, Holy Tuesday in the Orthodox tradition is also called Bridegroom Tuesday. The services for Holy Tuesday focus on the Parable of the Ten Virgins, and the congregation prays that we will remain vigilant, with hearts prepared to receive our King and our Lover. Then in hymns and odes we contemplate our own unworthiness to be united thus with Christ’s divinity. Continuing with the theme of repentance and building on the theme from the Old Testament of Hosea’s marriage to the prostitute Gomer as a metaphor for our own desertion of God, the Orthodox sing the Hymn of Kassiani (quoted in the last section), which tells of the prostitute who anointed Christ’s feet with perfume and wiped them with her hair.

Interestingly, it is an Orthodox man who gave us our only extended allegory of Christ as Bridegroom in fiction: Fyodor Dostoevsky , in "The Idiot." Indeed, the bridegroom allegory is the centerpiece of the novel. The majority of the narrative chronicles the romantic pursuit by Prince Myshkin (the Christ figure) of two woman: the tragic fallen Nastassya Fillipovna, and the beautiful and virtuous Aglaia. Some reviewers write that Prince Myshkin's 'love' for Nastassya Filipovna is only pity and Christian charity. After all, Nastassya is so embittered, so base in some of her actions, that it seems impossible for a noble prince to feel romantic love—that deep, abiding admiration and all-consuming passion—for a person like her. Yet a close reading of the text does not support that assertion.

In the first part of the book especially, Myshkin displays all the symptoms of a man deeply in love, complete with professions of adoration and stammering and blushing in Nastassya’s presence. Even when she completely degrades herself and involves Myshkin in her disgrace through their failed engagements, Myshkin still feels deeply enough for her to leave everything for her once again. Although he appears less passionate and adoring near the end of the story, his lack of zeal does not indicate any cooling of his romantic feelings for Nastassya but rather the natural concern he feels over the dangerous course of action she persists in and her seeming mental instability. The humbling thing we must remember, though, is that Myshkin’s love for the undeserving Nastassya is a direct allegory for how we are infinitely undeserving to be the bride of Christ. Thus, the fact that Myshkin’s love does not seem to make sense simply echoes the profound mystery of Christ’s love for us.

I began my journey towards understanding Christ as the Bridegroom and myself as the bride by lamenting my sins with Kassiani’s prostitute. On a certain level I will continue to lament my sins even though I know God forgives them and “remembers them no more.” But now I have moved beyond blank despair because I paradoxically know that despite my baseness, I am wedded to Christ, my true husband, and destined for the glory of being completely united with Him. Thus I pray the words of the Orthodox hymn for Holy Tuesday: that He may “make radiant the vesture of my soul,” so that I may enter the bridal chamber ordained for me.

Check out the rest of this essay at:
Christ the Bridegroom: #1
Christ the Bridegroom: #2
Christ the Bridegroom: #3

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