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Marriage: A Heavenly Metaphor

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Marriage: A Heavenly Metaphor

There’s nothing quite like a wedding, is there? It’s a time filled with the promise of new beginnings, and ancient commitments, and ongoing love. Unfortunately, we’ve come to see it really in one context only: the weddings of couples committing to creating a family together.

But the image of weddings and marriages comprises far more than that.

Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament describe how God marries his bride (that is, those who believe in him), who will ultimately dwell with him forever in heaven. That’s a tremendous commitment! In marriage, couples promise to stay together until death parts them; God promises his love for the Church for all of eternity.

The earliest Christian tradition identifies certain Hebrew Bible texts as symbolic of the love between God and his people. The love poems of the Song of Songs and the writing of the prophet Hosea have many references to this relationship.

But it’s the New Testament that’s the most explicit about this mystical marriage, the marriage of Christ and his Church. Ephesians 5:22-33 compares the union of husband and wife to that of Christ and the Church; in fact, the central theme of the letter to the Ephesians is reconciliation of the alienated within the unity of the Church, of loving submission that begins with the example of Our Lord: “Be submissive to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This passage implies that the “bride” is the body of believers that comprises the universal Church.

We have an expression in English: we speak of a “marriage made in heaven.” But in truth, all marriages are made on earth; it’s the marriage of Christ and his Church that aspires—and connects—to heaven.

So where do we look to learn more about marriages?

 

The Song of Songs

The Hebrew Bible’s Song of Songs is a mosaic of love poems. The book is attributed or dedicated to Solomon, and is similar to Egyptian love poetry of the same era... and it has a long history of interpretation. Some have explained it as a celebration of conjugal love in marriage. Traditional Jewish interpretation identifies the groom as the Lord and the bride as the people of Israel. Early Christian interpreters understood the groom as Jesus and the bride as the Church. Both traditions have also applied interpretations that see the bride as an individual believer's soul. 

St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. John of the Cross are among the Church's foremost interpreters of this book, and what’s striking about all of these works—the Song of Songs, the sermons of St. Bernard on the Song of Songs, and the Spiritual Canticle of St. John of the Cross—is how all three can only really describe higher levels of spirituality in terms of the human experience of love. They demonstrate how closely humanity’s nature is to the nature of God, so close that God gives humanity the graces to pursue him as a person would pursue a beloved.

Other passages in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament compare God's relationship with his people to a marriage (Isa 54:6; Hos 2:16-20; John 3:29; Rev 21). Traditional interpretations of the Song of Songs make more sense when the whole context of the Bible is taken into account: if we understand God's covenant with his people as a marriage covenant, then it is easy to see God as groom and his people as bride.

The Rev. Greg Cleveland, OVM, has written about the mystical marriage we see in the Song of Songs in his upcoming book, Awakening Love, a guided retreat through the lens of Ignatian spirituality. Watch for it in September!

 

Let’s not forget weddings!

Lest all this talk of marriage become too focused on the analogies present in scripture, let’s remember that Jesus himself sanctified human marriage as well. His first miracle took place at a wedding, which can’t be accidental! Our faith is incarnational: Jesus turned water into wine, mixed clay with spittle, drew letters in the dirt. He sanctified the ordinary.

But why a wedding?

Ancient Jewish weddings were steeped in tradition and ritual. One of the customs was providing an extravagant feast for guests. Something went wrong at this wedding, though, because on the third day of the festivities they ran out of wine. This miscalculation would have been a great humiliation for both the bride and groom.

Remember that at this point people had been drinking for three solid days! Usually, the host would arrange for the best wine to be put out first; at that stage, people were cold sober and could assess its quality. Now it seemed that this custom had been ignored. Instead, the steward tasted something unexpected: high-quality wine.

It’s at this moment that Jesus first allows the people around him to see what he really is: the Messiah, long awaited and now finally among them. The water is the past. Jesus is the wine, the promised future.

At a Catholic wedding, people don’t generally drink wine for three days; but every wedding is in a sense a reflection of that first wedding, the moment when Jesus chose to show who he was. Couples who marry pledge to reflect Jesus in their relationship and family, to be the Church present to each other and to any children they may have.

Jackie and Bobby Angel write, speak, think about marriage, and they’ve shared some of their thoughts in Forever: A Catholic Devotional for Your Marriage.

 

What does this have to do with heaven?

It all ends up—as many of the questions we ask tend to do—in the book of Revelation. The ultimate union between the Lord and those saved by Christ for eternal life in God’s kingdom by the indwelling Holy Spirit is likened to the communion of marriage (Revelation 21-22). Using marriage as a lens is the best way we have to visualize, to understand, and to appreciate the promises of the New Testament and the abiding love of God for his creation.

What the analogy of the Song of Songs and Catholic marriages underline is the relational aspect of our faith. We know God. We know him in three Persons and in myriad ways. Heaven is, for us, a reunion: a deepening of a relationship we’ve already begun.

C.S. Lewis compared heaven and hell in The Great Divorce, writing that “all loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies and itchings that (hell) contains, if rolled into one single experience and put into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all.”

That joy is central to our relationship with God, and central too to the relationship we create with another through marriage…making it a perfect metaphor for heaven.

by Jeannette de Beauvoir

 

 

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