Monday, July 28, 2014

The Eucharist and Jesus the Bridegroom

I have just read Dr Brant Pitre's book, JESUS THE BRIDEGROOM. Written for the non specialist, it is really a 200 page Bible study on nuptiality, demonstrating that the bride-bridegroom imagery of Scripture is the fundamental undergirding symbol or icon of the Christian revelation, and not just one set of optional (and disposable!) metaphors that might have helped people in less enlightened ages than ours. I recommend JESUS THE BRIDEGROOM to all who might not grasp the violence done to the very basics of the God-given iconography at the heart of the Christian faith by the purported ordination of women priests and bishops. As John Saward said in his 1977 paper "Christ and His Bride", "He who images the heavenly bridegroom must be male."

I share with you today a section from JESUS THE BRIDEGROOM on the nuptiality of the Eucharist (hoping that it inspires you to buy the book!)


For many Christians the Lord's Supper is primarily a “memorial” of the Last Supper and the events of the night on which Jesus was betrayed. As Jesus says: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24-25). For others, it is a banquet of “thanksgiving” (Greek eucharistia) offered to God in gratitude for the gift of salvation, in union with Jesus, who “gave thanks” (Greek eucharistesas) over the bread and wine before he died (Matthew 26:27; Mark 14:23). For still others, the Eucharist is primarily a sacrifice, in which the bloody sacrifice of the cross is made present through the unbloody offering of bread and wine, as described by the apostle Paul: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16).

However, when we look at the mystery of the Eucharist through the lens of Jesus’ passion and death as the Bridegroom Messiah, another meaning comes to light. If Jesus is the Bridegroom and the Church is his bride, the Lord’s Supper is not just a memorial, or a banquet of “thanksgiving,” or a sacrifice; it is also a wedding banquet in which Jesus gives himself entirely to his bride in a new and everlasting marriage covenant.


One doesn’t have to look very hard or long to find abundant evidence in ancient Christianity for the understanding of the Eucharist as the wedding banquet of Christ and the Church.

As we’ve already seen, there are hints of just such an understanding in the book of Revelation’s description of a heavenly “wedding banquet” to which the disciples of Jesus are invited:

“Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed 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 wedding supper of the Lamb.” (Revelation 19:7-9)

As we have seen earlier, on one hand, the wedding supper described here is a representation of the heavenly kingdom of God and the end of time. On the other hand, it is also an allusion to the wedding banquet of the Eucharist, to which Christians on earth (known as the “saints”) are invited. As theologian Roch Kereszty writes: 

The eucharistic connotation of the wedding feast . . . is hard to miss. Already in the 50s in his first letter to the Corinthians Paul uses the phrase deipnon kuriakon [Greek for “supper of the Lord”] to designate the Eucharist.” 

In other words, the book of Revelation is deliberately describing the heavenly banquet of the kingdom of God in terms that are evocative of the Lord s Supper, to which Christians are invited and for which they should prepare themselves. This supper is both a participation in heavenly glory and an anticipation of the eternal marriage that will be fulfilled at the end of time.

Indeed, following in the footsteps of the book of Revelation, Saint Augustine writes that every celebration of the Eucharist is a renewal of the wedding of Christ and the Church:

Every Celebration [of the Eucharist] is a celebration of Marriage; the Church’s nuptials are celebrated.The Kings Son is about to marry a wife, and the Kings Son [is] himself a King; and the guests frequenting the marriage are themselves the Bride . . . For all the Church is Christ’s Bride, of which the beginning and first-fruits is the Flesh of Christ, because there was the Bride joined to the Bridegroom in the flesh. (Augustine, Homilies on 1 John 2:12-17)

In other words, in the Eucharistic “marriage celebration” (Latin nuptiarum celebratio) Jesus the Bridegroom is united to the Church, not just in spirit, but in body as well. For while Jesus, as the divine Son of God, is spiritually present everywhere, in the Eucharist he is present bodily: it is the wedding banquet at which the Bridegroom Messiah is united to his bride in both body and spirit.


In a striking illustration of this mysterious union, Saint Ambrose, the fourth-century bishop of Milan, describes the Lord’s Supper as the fulfillment of the “kiss” shared by the bridegroom and the bride in the Song of Songs. In one of his sermons to newly baptized Christians, Ambrose declares:

You have come to the altar, the Lord Jesus calls you, for the text speaks of you or of the Church, and he says to you: “Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth”’[Song of Songs 1:1]. This word can be applied equally to Christ or to you. Do you wish to apply it to Christ? You see that you are pure from all sin, since your faults have been blotted out. This is why He judges you to be worthy of heavenly sacraments and invites you to the heavenly banquet: “May he kiss me with the kiss of his mouth” [Song of Songs 1:1]. You wish to apply the same to yourself? Seeing yourself pure from all sins and worthy to come to the altar of Christ . . . You see the wonderful sacrament and you say: “May he kiss me with the kiss of his mouth,” that is, may Christ give me a kiss. (Ambrose, On the Sacraments, 5:5—7)

What a grand vision of the Lord’s Supper! This is especially so when we recall the ancient Jewish interpretation of the Song of Songs as an allegory of the love of God for Israel as expressed through worship in the Temple. In the words of Jean Danielou, for the Church Fathers, the Eucharist was nothing less than “the kiss given by Christ to the soul, the expression of the union of love.” In this way, the Eucharist fulfills the longing of bridal Israel for union with her God.

There is, however, a dark side to the mystery of the eucharistic kiss. Saint John Chrysostom, the fourth-century bishop f Constantinople, uses the very same image to warn against receiving the Lord s Supper in a state of unrepented grave sin. In Eucharistic liturgy composed by Chrysostom, the Christian faithful pray these striking words:

O Son of God, bring me into communion today with your mystical supper. I shall not tell your enemies the secret, nor kiss you with Judas’ kiss. But like the good thief I cry, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (CCC 1386)

For the early Church Fathers, knowingly receiving the Eucharist in a state of grave sin is like recapitulating the “kiss” of betrayal given by Judas to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:47-48). Here again, sin is not just about breaking rules; it is the betrayal of a relationship.


The idea of the Eucharist as a wedding banquet is not something confined to the writings of ancient mystics or a few Church fathers. It too is part of the official teaching of the Catholic Church today.

Once again, Pope John Paul II brings this aspect to the fore when he teaches that in the Eucharist Jesus gives his bride the wedding gift of himself:

[With the Eucharist,! we find ourselves at the very heart of the Paschal Mystery, which completely reveals the spousal love of God. Christ is the Bridegroom because “he has given himself”: his body has been “given,” his blood has been “poured out” (cf. Luke 22:19-20). In this way “he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). The “sincere gift” contained in the Sacrifice of the Cross gives definitive prominence to the spousal meaning of God’s love . . . The Eucharist is the Sacrament of our Redemption. It is the Sacrament of the Bridegroom and of the Bride. (John Paul II, Apostolic Letter On the Dignity and Vocation of Women [Mulieris Dignitatem], no. 26)

How many people today think of the Eucharist in this way, as “the Sacrament of the Bridegroom and the Bride”? Yet if love is defined as the gift of oneself to another person, then the Eucharist is the highest possible expression of Jesus’ spousal love for the Church. In the Eucharist Jesus not only tells the Church he loves her; he shows his love by really and truly giving himself to her, in both body and spirit, as the divine Bridegroom. Note well that this kind of self-gift is only really possible if the Eucharist is not just a symbol of Jesus - like a wedding ring, for example - but Jesus himself: his actual body, blood, soul, and divinity.

Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI describes the Eucharist as the premier expression of the sacrificial love that Jesus demonstrated on the cross when he writes:

The Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of self-oblation [self- sacrifice]. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos [“Word”], we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving. The imagery of marriage between God and Israel is now realized in a way previously inconceivable: it had meant standing in God’s presence, but now it becomes union with God through sharing in Jesus’ self-gift, sharing in his body and blood . . . We can thus understand how agape [Greek for “sacrificial love”] also became a term for the Eucharist: there God’s own agape comes to us bodily, in order to continue his work in us and through us. (Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter, God Is Love [Deus Caritas Est], nos. 13-14) 

For over four hundred years, one of the main debates between Protestants and Catholics has been over whether the Eucharist is a supper that calls to mind the Last Supper of Jesus or a sacrifice that makes present the self-offering of Jesus on Calvary. As Pope Benedict shows, the understanding of the Eucharist as a wedding banquet combines both of these notions into one: 

The Eucharist is both a wedding supper and a wedding sacrifice. It is the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9), whose sacrificial love for the Church is expressed by the gift of his body and blood in the Upper Room and on Calvary. In other words, the Eucharist is a “nuptial sacrament” of both the Last Supper and the cross (Benedict XVI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacrament of Charity [Sacramentum Caritatis], no. 27).


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