Espousal to Christ

Monday in the 14th Week of Ordinary Time: Hosea 2:16, 17c-18, 21-22, Matthew 9:18-26.

Today’s readings broach a subject dear to the heart of the Church: the espousal of the Church to Christ, her Bridegroom. Perhaps it’s my gender, perhaps the era in which I grew up, but this image never sat squarely with me. It’s taken a while for me to appreciate it. This image is powerful because it conveys not just the sacred bond — the covenant — with God, but also the intimacy and selfless love that are present in marriage.

It is the reading from Hosea, a prophet from the reign of bad King Jeroboam II, some 750 years before Christ’s birth, that brings us God’s promise of making a bride of Israel. God sets Hosea on an interesting course so that he can share in God’s own experience with the Jewish nation. God instructs Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord” (Hos 1:2b). To make this living lament clear in its intention, God tells him again, “Go, love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress, just as the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes” (Hos 3:1). Hosea, in fact, does just this and the Lord instructs him to name his children Jezreel (“God comes”), Lo-ruhamah (“not-pitied”), and Lo-ammi (“not my people”). Again, Hosea does as instructed.

Hosea and Gomer in an Embrace (1372), from a manuscript known as Bible Historiale | Wikimedia Commons.

All of this sets the scene for God to reclaim and redeem Israel, his wife who has become a whore in her love for foreign gods like Baal. First, the Lord explains that she must make her way back to Him: “She shall pursue her lovers, but not overtake them; and she shall seek them, but shall not find them. Then she shall say, ‘I will go and return to my first husband, for it was better with me then than now” (Hos 2:7a). This is important, for God gives us free will, and while He wants us to return to Him, we must desire this within ourselves. But, in our unfaithfulness, do we owe God something? Anyone who is familiar with the sacrament of Reconciliation understands that the answer is yes. First, we owe our contrition, a “contrite heart” that pleases the Lord. And then there is penance (seemingly very easy these days as doled out by priests in my experience). God explains to Hosea, “I will uncover her shame in the sight of her lovers, and no one shall rescue her out of my hand. I will put an end to all her mirth, her festivals, her new moons, her sabbaths, and all her appointed festivals” (Hos 2:10-11). God points to what a person who admits guilt and lives in the light will experience: only He accepts unconditionally while those unworthy ones with evil in their hearts (“her lovers”) turn from the uncomfortable light of truth. There is an “end to all her mirth” because she, Israel, must die to sin, must no longer celebrate death (that is, worship of the worldly). This constitutes the punishment: “I will punish her for the festival days of the Baals, when she offered incense to them and decked herself with her ring and jewelry, and went after her lovers, and forgot me, says the Lord” (Hos 2:13).

But here God pivots. And wonderfully so. He never wants to leave us in perpetual punishment. He wants us back in our rightful place of intimacy with Him. As we read in today’s reading, “Thus says the LORD: I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart. She shall respond there as in the days of her youth, when she came up from the land of Egypt.” He allures us. How? I am struck with the same response I have when people ask how they can hear God’s voice: through the wonders of the natural world He created, in the silence of our hearts and minds that give space for the spirit to soar, in His Spirit that animates us to care for others, and so much more. God is so infused in the world that everything speaks of Him and about Him. Note that God says He will “lead her into the desert and speak to her heart.” Consider the deep tradition here of the desert being a place to meet God (like Moses does in the burning bush) and a place to prepare oneself in isolation, in abandonment to Him. Of course, Jesus’s 40 days in the desert after being baptized by John come to mind. Jesus, the ultimate proxy for all of humanity, prepares Himself in the desert and in so doing prepares all of us to re-convene that journey back to God, once and for all.

The transformation God promises is a willing return to Him as a loving husband: “On that day, says the LORD, She shall call me ‘My husband,’ and never again ‘My baal [master].'” Israel, and later all of humanity, re-discovers the love that God offers when in the desert with Him, allows this love to transform her, and no longer sees a heartless master, but a loving husband. God continues, giving us the full import of His marriage to humanity: “I will espouse you to me forever: I will espouse you in right and in justice, in love and in mercy; I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the LORD.” Note that He is the One who enacts the marriage, who brings the right, justice, love, mercy, and fidelity. Importantly, this comprises the revelation of His very self. This is our Judeo-Christian definition of God, and here we see how it comes directly from His own revelation of self to the prophets like Hosea. He is all-good. He is justice, love, mercy, and fidelity. These are also fundamental aspects of Christian marriage, again, as defined by God Himself.

Here’s the power of God using the image of espousal: it enables us to better understand our God as someone with whom we are called to have an intimate, loving relationship. This is drastically different than the other gods in other cultures from antiquity. It also sets the stage for what we will encounter in His Son, Jesus Christ (and the espousal of the Church to Christ, which we will explore below). In addition, God is sanctifying the sacrament of human marriage by entering into this relationship with us. He is defining for us concepts that we invariably fall short of living, namely love, mercy, and fidelity. This whole revelation to Hosea is an example of His endless mercy for a wife (Israel) who has whored herself out to others. It is an example of fidelity to an intimate bond that we can hardly imagine. This is why He instructs Hosea himself to marry a woman who was a prostitute, so that he can literally live out the same type of love, mercy, and fidelity that God is living out for Israel. 

Resurrected Christ and Virgin (c.1480-1490), Prayer Book illuminated by followers of Willem Vrelant of Bruges | Creative Commons, courtesy thedigitalwalters.org. This is Walters Manuscript W.438, fol. 229v. I use this beautiful illumination to point out that Christ as the Bridegroom was taken quite personally and literally in the Middle Ages, particularly by saintly virgins like St. Catherine of Siena. This is not exactly the type of espousal I’m discussing here. Rather, I’m reflecting on the more general espousal with the Church, the Body of Christ.

What gift does a bridegroom give his bride? The greatest act of love, mercy, and fidelity that God gives his people is His Only Son, all the moreso because this gift costs Him. His will is that His Son be sacrificed ignominiously on the cross. But God wills this because it ushers in the Last Times, when His intimate relationship with us is quickened and intensified in the Real Presence that inhabits the Liturgy. It is for us that God wills His Son to take up the Cross. It is for us and for His Father that Jesus willingly makes this sacrifice. This is why St. Paul can give the Ephesians the example of Christ as the Bridegroom for the Church as a way to order our own marriages here on earth: 

For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband (Ephesians 5:23-33).

There is nothing wrongly submissive about a wife being subject to her husband just as the church is subject to Christ. This is trusting adoration. Likewise, there is nothing askew with a husband loving his wife so much as to give himself up for her. This is the definition of ultimate love. I’ve too often heard contemporary people shudder over this reading and offer a caustic remark that this is the problem with the Church — men dominating all power relationships. Ugh, please. It takes a seriously blind person not to understand the full meaning here. Neither person in a Christian marriage should wield power against the other. Both follow the example of Christ and give of themselves, adoring the other. Marriage and fidelity are defined by God, not by us, because the qualities that make up the intimate, sacred union of marriage are perfect only in God. To think that we define marriage is like allowing the cat to dictate the rules of your household. We can’t even comprehend what it takes to be as good, true, merciful, and loving as you need to be in a marriage without the example of Christ.

So God employs the image of marriage from the early days of His relationship with the Jewish nation. It is a form of being with Him that is sacred and intimate, and it is something they can strive to replicate with one another. 

Jesus employs the image of the bridegroom several times in the gospels. In fact, in the verses just prior to today’s gospel reading, Jesus uses the bridegroom image to explain why his disciples are not fasting: “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Mt 9:15). Clearly, He is the bridegroom, and hearkening to the ancient Jewish tradition of a 7-day feast following a wedding, His time on earth is the time of feasting and celebration.

Let’s remember this scene in all of its intensity because St. Matthew presents these moments one after another in rapid succession, and their depth is easily missed. Today’s reading begins, “While Jesus was speaking…” Where was he? He was at the home of Matthew, the tax collector, whom He had just chosen as an apostle, stunning the righteous Jews around Him. He is reclining at dinner with Matthew and his tax collector group of friends (i.e., sinners, impure Jews). The Pharisees complain and Jesus answers, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. … For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Mt 9:12b, 13b). These words reveal much. Not just about Christ and His attention to those in need, but also about who is most ready for Him. Sinners live out of sync with truth and light, in a rawness that wears their spirit and can make them understand in their core the need for conversion and healing. These are the ones living on the edge of the spiritual desert who cling to the glitter of the world but whom God wants to abandon themselves to the desert so that He can meet them there and allure them. He wants to offer them their much-needed healing and absolution so that they can return to Him like a pure and faithful bride, to use the image from Hosea.

The Calling of Matthew (Die Berufung des Matthäus), 1536, Jan Sanders van Hemessen | Creative Commons, courtesy Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen – Alte Pinakothek München.

We get a clear picture of the Pharisees’ frustration with this man who seems not to uphold the rules, prohibitions, and rituals in the way they think is important. Their next question to Him as He reclines at dinner with Matthew is the one about fasting, and this just seems nitpicky and small of them. Christ responds with the image of the Bridegroom, something that surely would have raised eyebrows. But before they can retort, we get to today’s reading, when, “While Jesus was speaking, an official came forward, knelt down before him…” Here is a “leader of the synagogue” (the NRSV translation) who suddenly appears and attests to Christ’s position as the eschatological Bridegroom. He kneels in supplication, out of nowhere, acknowledging his Lord’s supremacy and his powerlessness before Him. Nothing could have been a better response to the high-and-mighty Pharisees than this respected official, on the same social level as them, coming in and showing obeisance to Jesus. 

And here we also see the boldness of the official, who St. Mark tells us is named Jairus. He rushes up to the Lord in his desperate grief over his daughter’s death. Rather than staying and mourning at home with the others, his faith carries him to Christ. Yet what is more stunning, that Jairus would interrupt this dinner Christ is having, saying “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live,” or the fact that “Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples”? It was just prior to this day that Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount where he says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” And this day or so later we see Him bear this out. Jairus boldly, in faith, asks. Jesus, without hesitation, gives.

As if the unfolding drama was not enough to take in, Jesus walks through the crowds towards Jairus’s house and a “woman suffering hemorrhages for twelve years ” approaches Him from behind in another “search and you will find” moment of faith. Again, it’s so amazingly concise that we might overlook it’s depth and importance. Why would the Holy Spirit inspire St. Matthew to include the fact that she was bleeding for 12 years? Twelve is important because it signifies the whole of Israel, the 12 tribes. There are also 12 apostles, marking the new Israel they will start in the Church. Her bleeding signifies the impurity, the sinfulness of the tribes in need of purification by their Messiah. The weight of redemptive history is multiplied through her person as we consider what it means to approach Jesus from behind and not see His face. On Mount Sinai, when receiving the Ten Commandments, “Moses covered his face, for he was afraid to gaze on God” (Ex 3:6). This woman, too, understands her lowliness in the face of the Almighty

Christ and the Woman with the Issue of Blood (1509), Urs Graf | Creative commons, courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collections.

St. Matthew relates her inner thoughts: “If only I can touch his cloak, I shall be cured.” She reaches up and touches the tassel on his garment. The tassels on Jewish clothing were prescribed by God in the Book of Numbers to be worn as a reminder to keep God’s commandments. They serve as a visible locus of the covenant — a reminder that God loves and cares intimately for us and that we are called to maintain our fidelity to Him. The Holy Spirit is guiding her mind and her hand to the tassels on Christ’s garment, the tassels worn by the Living Word and Wisdom of God. They are not only a symbol of fidelity but a symbol of perfected fidelity within the Trinity. What greater object of attention, affection, and caress could we possibly have? All of this in a small, easily overlooked detail of St. Matthew’s gospel.

At her touch of His garment, “Jesus turned around and saw her.” Again, Matthew’s economy of language here belies a staggering moment in the life of this woman who, in great humility yet great courage, wants to only touch the tassels on His garment, not see Him face-to-face. St. Mark gives us a bit more detail in his gospel: “Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ (Mk 5:30). In both instances, we are made aware that something important has happened on the spiritual plane. The impure, hemorrhagic woman crawls from her spiritual desert towards the God who allures her, she reaches out in faith and humility to Him, her one and only true spouse. How can He not but turn to her as well? The Father reveals to us that He is the definition of fidelity and mercy, and, in Jesus, God has turned toward man too decisively for just a healing-by-touch moment to suffice. In this moment, Christ reveals that He is God, the one Bridegroom who loves beyond our comprehension. He sees her. And as their gazes connect, He reassures her with the intimacy and healing that only God can provide: “Courage, daughter! Your faith has saved you.”

In the words of Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, “Jesus calls out to the woman, using the same term of intimate relationship that the stricken father had used a moment before to refer to his biological daughter … As divine Word, Jesus has no less and urgent concern for her welfare than, at his level, Jairus has in his anguish over his daughter’s death “(Fire of Mercy, Heart of the World, Vol I, 467-468). As we read this expansion of spiritual daughterhood to the nation stuck in sin (in the form of this woman), we also see how Christ will expand redemption from the Jewish nation to all of humanity. The fancy theological term for this is divine filiation.

Next in the gospel reading, Jesus arrives at Jairus’s house and meets a crowd of mourners causing a commotion. I can hear the shrill wails of the women and low moans of the family mixing with the mournful sounds of the flutes in a cacophony of misery. This is the culture of death. This is why Christ forces them out. And they ridicule Him when He says she is only sleeping, showing that they are deaf to the Words of Life and bereft of faith in the face of the Savior. Leiva-Merikakis presents a great gloss of this moment: “By their mockery of Jesus’s presence and prophetic words … the mourners show themselves to be resigned to the cult of death. They have become so accustomed to the darkness of death that they are professionals of despair, enemies of the promise of life” (Fire of Mercy, 470).

St. Matthew ends the episode simply: “When the crowd was put out, he came and took her by the hand, and the little girl arose.” This gesture, of course, speaks volumes. The strong arm/hand of God is a recurring theme in scripture. Here, we encounter the hand of our Lord not wiping out armies but intimately taking the hand of a girl and raising her up. It is a gentle gesture but contains within it the ultimate power of God: bestowing life through fidelity, love, and mercy. Leiva-Merikakis tells us: “The gesture of Jesus’ hand strongly grasping the girl’s is that of the Bridegroom-Deliverer: ‘You will know that I am the Lord when I open up your tombs and lead you out of your graves’ (Ezek 37:13)” (Fire of Mercy, 472-473). 

The resurrection of Jairus’ daughter (Die Auferweckung der Tochter des Jairus), 1880, Albert von Keller | Wikimedia Commons. As I looked for historical paintings of this scene, this one struck me immediately in terms of its fine craftsmanship. The faces and poses of the mourners show an array of amazement, happiness, and even resignation (i.e., self-absorption). I was at first hesitant to choose one that shows a young girl with a naked torso, but two things about the way von Keller paints her and Christ dispelled any doubts. First is the intimacy, trust, and innocence inherent in their embrace, for which the virginal nudity seems appropriate. Second is their positioning as if bride and groom, which suits this post perfectly.

And so we encounter again the theme of espousal to God. As Leiva-Merikakis writes, the girl has symbolically ceased being her father’s natural daughter and has become the child of the Father in heaven and the bride of Jesus. This, for me, makes the idea of Christ as the Bridegroom more intelligible: because His redemption of us is so intimate, loving, and full of fidelity like the perfect marriage, He is the ultimate Bridegroom for the Church. It is the character of His love and the eternal life He offers that makes the image of espousal a potent one. 

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