The Church as Bride and Mother

Meditations on the Images and Marks of the Church – Part 2

This is the second in line of the series of six web meditations launched by Fathers Geoffrey Neal and Edward Bryant on the Church, the images and marks that have underpinned an orthodox vision. An overview of the meditations is available here.

On Being Church

One of the casualties for our faith has come from the gender wars which have weakened images we have traditionally relied upon to communicate the deepest meaning of being Church. In the church year after Pentecost, we reflect upon a number of vital images to help our understanding of the Church as the Bride of Christ and Mother Church. When understood these images can reveal the meaning of our communion with Christ and also the great gift and vision of love between man and woman. Words like “Bride” and “Mother” are both imbedded in the language of Scripture and Tradition but today they have virtually been abandoned and replaced by a model of the church as simply a bureaucratic organisation. This new thinking has resulted in the Church of Christ descending into triviality and irrelevance while at the same time losing the gift of feminine dignity and beauty. To recover the deep meaning of the church let us look afresh at the two images of bride and mother as used over the past and apply them to the present.

The Church as Bride

The two sources we turn to are Holy Scripture and the Fathers where the Bride image begins to emerge.

The image of Israel as bride was already used frequently by the prophets of the Old Testament, and Jesus too applied this image to himself as the bridegroom of his Church, the new Israel [Mark 2:19: “Can the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them?”]. The first three synoptic Gospels seem to suggest that being with Jesus was like being with the groom before the wedding. [Matt 9:15] St. Paul speaking directly to the Church in Ephesus uses the marriage image in his memorable passage “be imitators of God…husbands ought to love their wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her”. [Eph 5:25]

The Marriage at Cana, Decani – Unknown author, Public domain

But this spousal image in the New Testament is taken to a mystical level in chapter two of the 4th Gospel, where St. John records the first sign of the Lord’s ministry in Cana. The episode seems to be deliberately pointing to all the events that would follow. It takes place significantly on the third day, the day of resurrection, and then in the next chapter [John 3:27-29], the meeting with the Baptist who greets Jesus with these words: “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven. …I said, ‘I am not the Christ’, but, ‘I have been sent before Him’. He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled”. Although at Cana, apparently on the surface, it is a social gathering where the Lord is quietly prevailed upon to replenish the wine by transforming the contents of six stone water pots. The earliest commentators interpret Cana as an anticipation and sign of the transforming of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. The Cana wedding therefore points beyond itself to the meaning of the Christ as the groom and the messianic age with the wedding banquet of the kingdom.

It is a sign that marriage on earth can become a prototype in the Church of all the sacraments that unite Christ the bridegroom to his people in an indissoluble union of love. This connection between marriage and the Eucharist was made by many of the Church Fathers, but nowhere better than the later mystic Nicholas Cabasilas in the 14th century who said the Eucharist was “the most praised wedding to which the groom leads the Church as a bride and we become flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone”. Here was the most excellent image from creation to signify the mystical union between Christ and the Church as his bride. The image increasingly grows in importance as the sacramental life within the church becomes more and more central to the self understanding of being church in communion with the Lord. Because it points to the deepest possible spousal communion with Christ and reveals the reason for his coming into the world as a man, the Cana sign has long been associated with the season of Epiphany.

Tragically this important spousal image has become lost or damaged in the world and even in the Church because of the constant attack on male and female, wife and husband and the sanctity of marriage and gender over many decades. Pope John Paul II was so concerned about these threats to human relationships that he wrote a public letter to families in 1994, showing that in the spousal communion with Christ the Church offers the deepest meaning of being Church and for human relationships in married life.

Increasingly today there are now secular writers and scholars such as Joanna Williams, a senior lecturer at the University of Kent, coming forward to say that notwithstanding some very important achievements for women, the subsequent developments and the enforced agenda of feminism, have gone too far, and have become harmful to both men and women and to the stability of social life in the community.

The positive mystery of the true feminine as well as the true masculine that dwells in the heart and mind of the Church was clearly seen by Ireneus of Lyons [130-200] as a gift to the world when he says: “she feeds the flock with the milk of the scriptures of the Lord…for the Church has been planted in the world as a paradise”. The more we are aware that this nuptial image is hard-wired into the relationship between Christ and his people, the more other images such as “I am the vine and you are the branches” which appears in the 4th Gospel at a point when Jesus is himself teaching about this grafting bond or important communion with him. Of this Origen of Alexandria [185-254] was to comment: “In truth before Jesus the scriptures were as water but after it has become wine for us”.

The words of Origen have always helped me, for he said when meditating on this image in very difficult times, “from the wound of Christ’s side comes forth the Church and he has made her his bride”. We are right to treasure the beauty of the nuptial relationship with Christ because it is the most powerful and natural way to convey the essence of communion. The same image is present in the final words of the New Testament as the Spirit and the Bride together both waiting for the return of Christ in glory and harmony say: “’Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ And let him who thirsts come”. [Rev 22:17] All of this we will treasure especially as we seek to become the true body of Christ, who exist not for ourselves but for the world. In doing this we may be putting ourselves on a collision course with the modernists, but if this nuptial image is true and of God, then we have no other alternative than to uphold what must be part of the good news and truth of the unique faith and life of the Church.

The Church as Mother

If the bridal image is what we are in our relation to Christ, then the Mother image is what the Church is for us, the people of God in the world. It would be all too easy to dismiss this mother image as sentimental and out of date. It is far from that!

The realisation that the Church as mother is a strong image dawned upon me listening to the composer John Tavener at a talk he gave before the performance of his choral work “The Protecting Veil” [1987]. He said, for him the Mother of God was like a battleship leading the people through the roughest storms. The power of this protecting image, strong and yet tender, is present in Scripture and tradition and beautifully rendered in Tavener’s composition.

Anyone who deals with animals will know just how innate the mothering instinct to protect and feed her young really is. Both Jesus and St. Paul use the mother image in this way. The Apostle explains his apostolic ministry as one who brings children into the protection of the family. [1 Thess 2:7–13 and Gal 4:19] Our Lord, uses the same example of a mother hen gathering her chicks as an image for his own ministry, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! [Matt 23:37]

Virgin of Guadalupe (16th c.) – Wikipedia, Public Domain

The most startling passage is however from the Apocalypse chapter 12 which portrays the Church as “the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet”. This is the vision of a woman who in protecting her child from Satan, is hated by the devil, just as Christ and his people are also hated. Unable to defeat the woman the devil then turns to the fledgling gentile church which we know was struggling at that time to survive the raw evil and persecution by the Roman state. This passage is clearly a warning to the gentile churches and especially put alongside the letters of John the Elder to the same churches of Asia Minor who find themselves in the dangerous world of predators. From his exile in Patmos John tries to warn the little flock saying “I the elder to the chosen lady and her children” – a clear reference to the Church as mother.

The Church Fathers are for the most part in the early days dealing with errors and heresies regarding the nature of God the Holy Trinity, rather than the Church itself. There is little formal teaching on the Church because at that time it was self evident everywhere. However as the threat of persecution increases, the need to defend the people of God become crucial. Then a strong protective image of the Church as Mother becomes more important. In difficult times the Church is required to be defender of the faith.

It was the Council of Ephesus 431 that declared the Virgin Mary to be “Theotokos” (bearer of God) and the person who embodies the properties of “being the Church”. Mary as mother of Jesus Christ contains and personifies concepts which were gradually to help grasp the importance of Mother Church. A decade before the council, St. Augustine who had depended so much upon his own mother Monica’s protection had also been pondering on the role of the Virgin Mary in the conflict between the faith and the powers of evil, and step by step realising that the Church must have both an outward structure and an interior mystical core to cope with life in the world. He saw that the love of the virgin towards her beloved son was needed at the heart and soul of the Church if it was to be a living organism. Using this image we may today be able to face and correct the descent into the worst aspects of institutional Christianity that appears to be one of our greatest problems. This must have been true for St. Methodios, one of the patron saints of Europe, who was able to say, “the church stands upon our faith and adoption…she labours to bring forth ordinary man as spiritual men and for this reason she is our mother”.

Our Lady of Vladimir (12th century) – Public Domain, Wikipedia Commons

Thus through meditation the important concept of the Church as mother began to evolve in association with the piety surrounding the Blessed Virgin Mary who became the image for all who were called to be bearers of Christ.

John Tavener’s composition “The Protecting Veil”, which influenced my own thoughts, is based upon the siege of Constantinople in the tenth century when the Greek Christians experienced a mirror of the vision of St. John, and how they were delivered from the Saracen siege by the protecting prayers of the Mother of God. The protecting veil of Mother Church is still crucial today. This maternal perspective is clearly conveyed by the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir pointing to her son the Christos. For this reason Holy Mary as Mother, increasingly stands at the centre of our ecclesiology as the sign of the human “yes” to God the Father. “If Christ is the icon of the Father, Mary is the icon of the new creation as the new Eve fulfilling the mystery of love”, were the wise words of Alexander Schmemann.

The feminine element in both bride and mother are essential images within the liturgical life of the Church so there is no way of avoiding of the present confrontation. The Christian tradition upholds a deep insight, that our Mother the Church is there to provide everything needed for those who are growing in the faith. Today it is protection, leadership and courage, but always regular true and nutritious feeding that is needed in the storms of life. It is within this mindset of that the mystery of the true feminine dwells, rather than in the contemporary gender models. The Apostle warns us: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” [Romans 12:2] The above mentioned insight of St. Ireneus of the Church Mother sums it up: “she feeds the flock with the milk of the scriptures of the Lord…for the Church has been planted in the world as a paradise”. Whatever else the Church is, she must never cease to manifest Christ to the world as the way of goodness, truth, beauty and life.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

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