Was the Cross of Christ the Nuptials Between Christ and the Church?
by: Fr. Richard Hogan
One of the ideas circulating among those who study and reflect on Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body addresses is that the cross of Christ was the marriage bed of the bridegroom (Christ) with his bride (the Church). Since St. Paul speaks of Christ as the bridegroom of the Church and the Church as Christ’s bride (See Ephesians 5:22-33.), one can speculate about when the marriage began. The defining moment of Christ’s life was his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. It might seem reasonable to suggest that Christ’s cross was the time the marriage was celebrated.
Further, it has been an axiom of sacramental theology that the flow of blood and water from Christ’s opened side after his death on the cross is the life blood of the Church, i.e., the source of the Church’s life—the life of grace. So, through the cross, one might speculate that Christ “impregnated” His bride with life. From this point of view, the cross was the marriage bed of Christ and the Church.
However, it seems that there are some problems with this formulation. At the very least, the assertion that the cross of Christ was the marriage bed of Christ and the Church needs some clarifications. First of all, the sacrifice of Christ was directed completely towards the Father. Second, to speak of Christ’s cross as the marriage bed of Christ and the Church is to implicitly exclude the other two Persons of the Trinity in the relationship between God and the Church. Third, to emphasize the bride-bridegroom analogy is to exclude other analogies which also shed light on the mystery of the Church’s life, e.g., that the Church is Christ, i.e., the Church is Christ’s mystical body. Fourth, Christ’s “marriage” to the Church was not consummated in “one flesh” as is necessary for any marriage because there was no bodily union between Christ and any one, ever. Fifth, death, even the death of Christ, is an isolating event. In a sense, we all die alone---not in union with other people—even Christ: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (See Matthew, 27:46.) It is difficult to imagine two newly married spouses feeling isolated on their wedding night! Sixth, Christ was literally tortured to death. His Passion caused him unimaginable pain. To speak of such a death as a wedding night seems impossible. I doubt that married people look back on their first night as a bed of horrendous pain and torture!
Let us elaborate on these points one by one by examining relevant texts of Pope John Paul II. (In studying the writings of the late Pope, one must read the entirety of his work in order to clarify the essential points of particular texts.)
First, the sacrifice of Christ was a sacrifice! For this reason, the cross is often considered to be the altar on which Christ the priest offered his own self as a sacrifice. The marriage bed is hardly a sacrificial altar!
In addition, Christ’s sacrifice was directed towards the Father: “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit.” (See Luke 23:46.) Christ stood in our stead and offered Himself to the Father in our place for our sins. As Pope John Paul II taught in his encyclical, Riches in Mercy, “in the passion and death of Christ-in the fact that the Father did not spare His own Son, but ’for our sake made him sin’ (See 2 Cor. 5:21)-absolute justice is expressed, for Christ undergoes the passion and cross because of the sins of humanity. This constitutes even a ‘superabundance’ of justice, for the sins of man are ‘compensated for’ by the sacrifice of the Man-God.” (no. 7.) We might say that the sacrifice of Christ was vertical, i.e., directed to the Father in the Holy Spirit. The emphasis on the cross as the marriage bed of Christ and the Church makes the sacrifice of Christ primarily a horizontal reality, i.e., directed towards humanity. Of course, Christ’s offering of himself was for humanity, but it was not directed towards humanity. The marriage bed analogy does not allow sufficiently for the vertical direction of Christ’s sacrifice towards the Father and this flaw is quite significant.
Second, there is a very important principle in Trinitarian theology which is also not adequately addressed by the marriage bed analogy. Everything God undertakes towards humanity is undertaken by all the members of the Trinity. While we attribute Creation to the Father, Redemption to the Son, and Sanctification to the Holy Spirit, still all three Persons of the Trinity participate in each of these acts towards humanity. One example will suffice. In the prologue to his Gospel, St. John the Evangelist clearly teaches that the Son created: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.” (See John, 1:1-3.) It was not only Christ who redeemed us, it was the Godhead: all three Persons participated. To speak of the cross as the marriage bed of Christ and the Church, it would also be necessary to speak of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit as participating in that marriage bed. Obviously, such a notion is impossible.
Pope John Paul II affirms that the Redemption was an activity of all Three Persons of the Trinity and further, that the Holy Spirit is actually the one who is Person-Gift. “The Paschal events- the Passion, Death and Resurrection- of Christ are also the time of the new coming of the Holy Spirit, as the Paraclete and the Spirit of truth. They are the time of the ‘new beginning’ of the self- communication of the Triune [emphasis added] God to humanity in the Holy Spirit through the work of Christ the Redeemer.” (See The Lord and Giver of Life, no. 23.) Further, the Pope teaches that “in the light of what Jesus says in the farewell discourse in the Upper Room, the Holy Spirit is revealed in a new and fuller way. He is not only the gift to the person (the person of the Messiah), but is a Person-gift.” (See The Lord and Giver of Life, no. 22.)
In fact, in his Theology of the Body addresses, John Paul II teaches that the marriage of Christ and the Church can only be understood in terms of the order of grace. Of course, the gift of grace, sanctification, is the work of God attributed to the Holy Spirit. In no. 95b the Pope writes that “the analogy of marriage, as a human reality in which spousal love is incarnated, helps in some way to understand the mystery of grace.” And again in the same address, John Paul teaches that the analogy of spousal love and marriage, “indicates the ‘radical’ character of grace: of the whole order of created grace.” It is the Holy Spirit who is the Person-Gift. The work of sanctification, the work attributed to the Holy Spirit, is the gift of grace. If we wish to speak of a “marriage” between the Church and God, perhaps we should say that the Holy Spirit “marries” the Church. And the visible manifestation of such a “marriage” would be the tongues of fire descending on the Apostles on the feast of Pentecost—the day the Church was born in the sense that the Church manifested itself to the world.
Third, no analogy or even a whole set of analogies penetrates the infinite mystery of God and his relationship with the Church. The Church is one of the mysteries of the faith. For this reason, the affirmation of the Church is included in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” We would not affirm belief in something we could understand with the human intellect alone. No, we affirm belief in mysteries of the faith which cannot be understood without the supernatural gift of faith. Therefore, the Church is a supernatural mystery which we cannot completely grasp. Each analogy we use penetrates the mystery in a different way and allows us to come to some understanding (always inadequate with respect to the totality of the mystery) of a different characteristic of the total reality. As John Paul II remarked, “The mystery remains transcendent with respect to this analogy as with respect to any other analogy with which we try to express it in human language.” (See the Theology of the Body, no. 95b.) We must not rely solely on the analogy of marriage to help us understand something of the mystery of the Church. It must always be used in conjunction with other analogies of Christ’s relationship with the Church: the mystical Christ, the vine and the branches, the friendship of people outside of marriage, the relationship between people engaged in a project together, i.e., the communion of persons among all workers. (See the encyclical, On the Meaning of Work.)
Fourth, it is quite obvious that if we speak of the cross of Christ as the marriage bed of Christ and the Church, we are at least implying a physical union between Christ and a representative of the Church. Marriage requires, both in canon law and in civil law, physical consummation—the marital embrace between a husband and wife. During his crucifixion, there simply was no physical marital embrace between Christ and the Church or even a representative of the Church. Even if two people suffer together, as the two thieves suffered next to Christ, it is impossible to suggest that the suffering unites them in the way that married couples are united on their wedding night. In this regard, the analogy between the cross of Christ and the marriage bed of a wedding couple limps, and limps badly.
Just before he died on the cross, Christ said: “consummatum est,” which in English is “it is finished.” (See John, 19:30.) We use the same words about a marriage after the couple has engaged in the marital union for the first time. It is sometimes argued that since Christ used the same words we use about the marital union, it is proper to think of his cross as the marriage bed of his marital union with the Church. Consummatum est means that something is finished or completed. Christ was speaking about his sacrifice on Calvary. It was finished or done. A marriage is finished or completed when the couple comes together for the first time because without this union, there is no marriage. Even though the same words are used: “consummatum est,” the meanings are different. Christ said these words because his sacrificial offering was completed. A marriage is completed with the first marital embrace. Two different tasks can be completed, e.g., a road trip, and a degree, but that does not mean that just because we use the world “complete,” that the two tasks are the same.
Fifth, marriage is one of the most profound of all human unions or relationships. A death isolates the one who dies. We all die alone, even Christ. His cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” indicates, in part how alone he felt. (Now, of course, these are among the first words of Psalm 22 which concludes with a ringing endorsement of God’s love for us. Still, while we can affirm that Christ, even at this most trying moment, knew of the Father’s love for him, yet, the first line which he recited aloud also shows us his emotional state: he felt terribly alone. Theologians tell us that on the cross, Christ did not allow the joys of the beatific vision, which he enjoyed even at this moment, to compensate his emotional and physical suffering.) The use of the marriage bed analogy fails to adequately appreciate one of the most dreadful sufferings of Christ: his isolation and terrible aloneness which was part and parcel of his emotional suffering.
Sixth, the marriage bed analogy also does not take into account the physical torture of Christ on the cross. Anyone who has read about the Shroud of Turin or even read the older book, A Doctor at Calvary, cannot possibly compare the immeasurable sufferings of Christ to the physical and emotional joys of a wedding couple’s first night. This point alone should give one pause in making such a comparison.
People will sometimes argue that the cross is a model for marriage because of the sacrificial self-giving love. Of course, it is. But, the cross is a model of sacrificial love for all people: single people, priests, religious, as well as married couples. “God is love and in Himself He lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in His own image and continually keeping it in being, God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion Love is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.” (See John Paul II, The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, no. 11.) One cannot maintain that because the cross is a model of sacrificial love that it only reflects marriage and therefore is the marriage bed. No, it reflects all vocations because in all vocations, men and women are called to sacrificial love.
The cross as a marriage bed ignores the much more important tradition of the cross as the altar of Christ’s sacrifice. Further, the notion of the cross as a marriage bed vitiates the vertical dimension of Christ’s sacrifice. It also fails to recognize the participation of all three divine Persons in the act of Redemption. The emphasis on the analogy of the cross as a marriage bed virtually excludes other analogies. In addition, the physical union of the marriage bed is not present in the mystery of the cross. The analogy of the cross as a marriage bed ignores the terrible isolation of death. And, of course, the cross as a marriage bed, fails because the first marital embrace of spouses is joyous. It certainly is not the torture that the cross was.
It does seem that the analogy of the marriage bed with the cross is not helpful. In fact, the more it is examined, the less illuminating the analogy becomes. In fact, this analogy actually obscures very, very important facts about the reality of the sacrifice of Christ. It is probably better not to use such a comparison.
Rev. Richard M. Hogan
November 21, 2008