A plaque hangs over the changing table in the nursery of a church that quotes I Corinthians 15:51 We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed. How true, one more than one level. That is what it’s all about, isn’t it, change, spiritual change. And though we can learn a lot from them, spiritual experiences are not reserved for some spiritual elite, such as St. Teresa of Avila and St. John’s of the Cross. The promise is to all of us. The challenge is making it a reality.
Forty years ago, or so, when a church fitted out a nursery one of the requirements was a screen that could provide privacy for a mother who breast fed her child – because a father was just as likely to be there caring for his child. The function of a nursery changed. There are an unlimited number of things a father can do in caring for an infant but, biologically, there are some things that are just outside his network.
John Wimberly, in a recent post, wrote that he kept hearing complaints from people in leadership in the church that people weren’t responding to their planned programs. His response was that the church shouldn’t try to compete with secular offerings. He says that there is still a need for programming by the local church, but it needs to be focused on deepening our members’ spiritual lives, creating small, intimate communities, and offering hands-on mission opportunities. He concludes that secular competition to our programs forces us to do what religious congregations can do best—focus on spirituality and mission. Seen in those terms the changes in our world liberates us to focus on deepening the spiritual lives of the members of our community of faith, sharing the truths on which our theological tradition is built. No secular group can do a better job.
In the 19th Chapter of Revelation we read these words.
When I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself 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 marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.
The love of God for humanity and in particular God’s ‘chosen’ people, whether the Children of Israel in the Old Testament or the nascent church in the New Testament is presented in the form of relationship between husband and wife, bride and bridegroom. The image is allegorical, and its a real struggle for us to wrap our minds around it, especially those of us of the male persuasion.
Thinking about Mother’s Day – I started wondering about what the role of the Bride of Christ in terms of that of Mother would mean, especially for those of us the male persuasion within the Church. We might think that the process of gestation, delivery and nursing another to the point of self hood for a male was out of the question, but that is to trip over our limitations as humans rather than seeing this as a spiritual opportunity. In our day and time we have difficulty getting over several hurdles before the beauty of this imagery can be embraced. The first challenge is to free the concept of marriage from gender – can we allow for a relationship that is rich, rewarding and fulfilling that is non-sexual? We find ourselves repeating the line that “God has no personal plumbing.”
Jesus must have something of this in mind when he challenged his closest followers to become fishers of men. I think the metaphor of bringing to spiritual birth is a much richer image than spreading nets and then drawing them to shore.
Don Lamb would stand in the pulpit on Mother’s Day and with tears in his eyes and his voice quivering sing M is for the many things she gave me, O means only that she’s growing Old. T is for the tears she shed to save me, H is for her Heart of purest gold. E is for her eyes with love light shining, R means right and right she’ll always be. Put them all together, they spell Mother. A word that means the world to me. I know, it’s too saccharine for most of us today but it causes us to consider the many motherly functions of one who might be identified as a part of the Bride of Christ.
This notion of being “the Bride of Christ” has application on several levels. There is The Church – the world wide body of followers of Jesus; there are the congregations, Friends Meetings if you please – and also, just as important, is the spiritual life of each individual.
In Matthew 25:1-13 we have this story:
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.
At the risk of being misunderstood and accused of supporting polygamy or polyandry on the physical level – in the context of this New Testament story polygamy was acceptable among the Jews and the bridegroom, in making his late night arrival, came to take his bride, not the bride’s servants, to his home. In the first verse the Greek word is that for virgins, marriageable daughters. Our social sensibilities caused the translators to avoid an uncomfortable but straight forward translation into a more politically correct ‘brides maids’. There are no bridesmaids, as we understand them, in this story, only brides. So half of the marriageable daughters, waiting to taken to the home of the groom were ready – half were not and, excuse the expression, were left behind. This story, when read from a spiritual perspective, suggests that there is one groom, Jesus, and innumerable brides of Christ.
In the sixteenth century writings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross such a relationship is characterized as “mystical marriage”. It is a mystical union with God which is the most exalted condition attainable by a human soul in this life. Others describe these kinds of spiritual relationships as “transforming unions”, “consummate unions” and even “deification”. St. Teresa in her classic of Christian Spirituality The Interior Castle elevates it to what she calls “the seventh resting-place”. The refrain is from Revelation 19: Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready;…
We are talking about being a prepared bride for the groom. The first element of such a Spiritual marriage has been described by some as an almost continual sense of the presence of God, even in the midst of external occupations. Such a sense of God’s presence doesn’t separate us from our senses, matter of fact enhances them. That’s clearly analogous to human marriage.
One writer describes their experience as being fully conscious during what felt to be supernatural acts of intellect and will as they sensed themselves being participants in the Divine life. One way to wrap our minds around this is to recall that it is thought that in the next life we are not only to enjoy the vision of God but to feel our participation in God’s nature. That’s analogous to human marriage where in the ideal there is a fusion of two lives.
Another authors hold that in the transforming union there is produced a union with the Divine Word, Christ’s Spirit, that is spoken of in the very beginnings of Acts. Luke writes of this: But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
This is very important to a Quaker understanding of living in relationship with an ever present Christ, the very Word of God. Both here in Acts and in the beginning of the Gospel of John we are introduced to Christ the Word – both with God as a participant in creation and in Jesus, the Word made flesh and now, the ever present promised comforter, the Holy Spirit, the divine groom who comes upon us as marriageable daughters and consummating a divine union.
How does that impact our lives? What’s analogous from the human relationship we know as marriage that is instructive to us in our spiritual quest? Discussions of the Apostle Paul’s view of marriage continues to produce more heat than light but when looked at through the lens of mystical marriage it is truly informative. It’s a concept that Paul thinks would be good to engender in human marriages of is day. We may choose to disagree with the extent of its applicability.
Most of us don’t like it, but here is what he wrote to the Ephesians: Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. … This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.
Paul admits that the mystery is profound and refers to Christ and the Church. When we mine his understanding of this mystery from the perspective of a spiritual experience we can learn a great deal about mystical marriage. The Groom desires his bride to be clean, washed in the water and the word because that’s the way he wants to see her, holy, pure, without spot or wrinkle – that is humanly impossible – however, it is the way couples deeply in love idealize their mates. The bride is loved – as much as the groom loves himself. That we ‘brides’ are loved is important to know. We brides are called to be pure – unadulterated – which sets a standard for how we live.
It’s an analogy that describes our relationship with an ever present Christ, how we live in that relationship of trust and love. It isn’t static, it is, like a human marriage full of surprises because it is alive. We are called to make ourselves ready – what do we put in our hope chest, our trousseau? We scrub ourselves clean from any impurity, we dispense with all other relationships and we put a wee bit of oil in our lamp to illumine our hopeful continence declaring our desire to be joined in marriage with Christ.
Back to the nursery’s changing table and the plaque that quotes I Corinthians 15:51 We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed. That is what it’s all about, isn’t it, Change, spiritual change. And the change isn’t what we lose but what we gain in our relationship with a spiritual spouse who comes for us and brings us to our new home to always live in our Grooms presence. So we pray “Come Lord Jesus.”