Jesus - The Bridegroom
Fr. Thomas Hopko · March 29, 2010
This week we will hear a lot about the Bridegroom in our Holy Week services. Who is this Bridegroom and what is the significance of that title?
When we read the Holy Scriptures, we see that one of the earliest names and titles given to Jesus in the Gospel of St. Mark and the Gospel of St. John is when Jesus is referred to as the Bridegroom. This is not unusual or unexpected, because, as we will see here in a minute, the imagery [is used] of Yahweh the Lord and Israel his people as a husband and a wife, a bridegroom and a bride. You could even expand that to the relationship of God to his creation, and then certainly we’ll see Christ and the Church, but right now, thinking of the Old Testament, it is [true] without a doubt that the most-used imagery of the relationship between the Lord and his people is that of husband and wife, bridegroom and bride.
It is not unusual at all that this imagery would come up right at the beginning of the Gospels. In St. Mark’s Gospel, in the first chapter, St. Mark begins right off with the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. That’s how it begins in the first chapter: Jesus is baptized. He’s driven into the wilderness; he’s tempted by the devil. Then he comes out and he calls Simon and Andrew his brother; he calls James and John. And then he goes to Capernaum; he goes into the synagogue, and he begins preaching.
Right from the beginning, the demons know who he is. And it’s very interesting that in St. Mark’s Gospel, no human being, anywhere in the entire Gospel, calls Jesus the Son of God, or even the Lord. Jesus is called the Christ: “You are the Christ, the son of David,” but no one calls him God’s Son, and certainly no one calls him God, but the demons, right from the beginning, they say to him, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? We know who you are: the holy one of God.” And we will discuss that title, the holy one of God, at some point.
But then Jesus goes, and he’s casting out the demons, and healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, and then they bring to him demon-possessed and [those who have] diseases, and he heals them all. He preaches, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe!” He cleanses a leper. Then you get into the second chapter where he heals the paralytic that’s carried to him by four men; they put him through the roof. Then they say he’s a blasphemer, because only God can forgive sins and speak in the name of God. They say, “We’ve never seen anything like this,” and they gather about him. He calls Levi to be his follower, his apostle, that is; Levi becomes Matthew, connected with the Evangelist. He sits at table with sinners and tax collectors.
So right in the first two chapters, you have Jesus doing all these things, saying that he’s come to call not the righteous, but the sinners. But then you get, in the middle of the second chapter, that’s very early in Mark’s Gospel, where they start comparing and contrasting Jesus with John the Baptist. And then they come, John’s disciples, and the Pharisees were fasting; and the people came and said to Jesus, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast, but they days will come when the Bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.” And then he continues his teaching.
So the point we want to see here is that Jesus is identifying himself as the Bridegroom. And he says, “If I am the Bridegroom and the disciples are with me, well, they’re going to rejoice with me. But then the day is going to come when the Bridegroom is going to be taken away, and when the Bridegroom is taken away, then they will definitely fast.” And, of course, Christians do fast, because our Bridegroom, Jesus, has been taken away, but we’re waiting for him to return again.
In Matthew and Mark and Luke, there is also [these] parables that have to do with a wedding-feast, and the marriage of the king’s son. Several parables have to do with weddings in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And then in Matthew, Mark, and Luke also, you have the parable about the wise and the foolish virgins, who are waiting for the bridegroom to come, and they’re supposed to have their oil lamps ready to meet the bridegroom when he appears; and then the wise virgins keep their lamps and their oil all ready so when the bridegroom comes they can go out and meet him, whereas the foolish virgins do not have their lamps ready, and then the bridegroom comes in the middle of the night, and they are not ready to go out to meet him, and they are shut out from the bridal chamber, and they cannot enter because they bridegroom has come and they were not ready to meet him. So this parable is saying that people should be ready to meet the Bridegroom when he comes.
You have these images of the bride and the bridegroom, and then in the parables of the marriage feast of the son, you have this speech about the bridal garment, the wedding garment, that you’re supposed to have to enter into the wedding as a guest. In those days, the garment was provided by the host, so that if you did not have a wedding garment, it meant you snuck in; you didn’t belong there. But we have to have our wedding garments to be ready to enter the marriage feast, and that we’re supposed to be waiting for Christ to come, and watch and pray because we don’t know the hour when he is coming.
So you could read about that in Matthew, Mark, Luke. Matthew 25, for example:
The kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five were foolish; five were wise. The foolish took their lamps, took no oil with them. The wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they slumbered and slept, but at midnight there was a cry, “Behold the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” And the maidens rose and trimmed their lamps and they went.
But the foolish ones had no oil, so they asked the wise for oil. They said, “No! Go and buy some for yourself.” And when they go out to buy, the bridegroom comes. And those who were ready went into him into the bridal chamber, the bridal feast. And the door was shut. So the Lord says, “Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour when the Lord, the Bridegroom, is coming.”
So he’s compared to a bridegroom. In St. John’s Gospel, you have also the same imagery being used. St. John’s Gospel begins with the first chapter with the prologue of the Gospel of St. John, very famous, read in our Church on Pascha night. And then you have the calling of the disciples: Peter and Andrew, and Philip and Nathanael. They find Christ who is coming. And then you get to the second chapter, and the second chapter begins with the story of Cana in Galilee: a wedding-feast.
So the very first miracle in John’s Gospel begins at a wedding-feast. There’s a bridegroom; there’s a bride. Jesus comes. They have no wine. They have a little bit of wine; it’s not very good. They run out of it. Mary tells Jesus that he should do something about it. He yields to her demand. They fill up the water jars with water, and then Jesus changes the water into wine, and it’s claimed that this is the very first sign that Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, manifested his glory; his disciples believed in him. It was at a wedding-feast. So you have that imagery then, again, of a wedding and a wedding-feast.
But then, in St. John’s Gospel, by the time you get to the third chapter, you have this debate between the people and John the Baptist, wondering, “Who is this John the Baptist? Is this John the Baptist maybe the Messiah?” And then some of John’s disciples go and they follow Jesus. And then John’s disciples are baptizing, and then the disciples from John who went to Jesus, they’re baptizing. The leaders of the people come out and they want to know, “Who is this John and what is he doing? What’s going on here?” So they ask him.
They ask him: “Are you the Christ?” And he says, “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. And he who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom who stands and hears him rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease.” So when they ask John, “Are you the Christ?” he says, “No”; “Are you the Prophet?” he says, “No”; “Who are you, then?” and he says, “I’m the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.”
And then here, in these lines we just read, he identifies himself as “the friend of the bridegroom.” He says, “I’m not the bridegroom.” You might dare say he says, “I’m the best man. I’m the bridegroom’s first attendant. I’m the one who comes with him, who leads him in, who presents him to the people, but I am not the bridegroom myself.” He says, “I am not the Christ. I have been sent before him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom who stands by and hears him rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase; I must decrease.”
So John the Baptist says Jesus is the Bridegroom, because he’s the one who has the bride. So you have in the New Testament, right from the beginning, the imagery of the marriage, the marriage-feast, the wedding, and then you have, very clearly stated, that Jesus is the Bridegroom, and that he is come for his bride; he has come to find his bride.
If we continued reading St. John’s Gospel, we’ll go to the very next chapter, and you will have an encounter of Jesus with a woman at a well in Samaria. Jesus goes into Samaria. He goes to a well that was Jacob’s well. He was wearied and tired from his journey. About the middle of the day, at noon, he sits down, and a woman of Samaria comes to draw water. And Jesus says to her, “Give me to drink.”
Anyone with a scriptural mind and who knows the Scripture will say, “Oh my goodness! Maybe Jesus is meeting his bride here,” because in the stories of the Old Covenant, very prominent people met their brides at wells. For example: Isaac. Abraham sends his servant to go find a wife from among his own people for the lord Isaac, and the servant goes to the land where he’s going to find the wife for Isaac, and he sees her coming at the well: Rebecca. And then Rebecca asks for water. He gets water. He meets the father, and then he chooses Rebecca for the wife of Isaac, and then Isaac sees her and he marries her. But the encounter with that bride takes place at a well.
Then Jacob meets Rachel at a well. Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel, and he’s the father of the twelve patriarchs—he meets his bride, also at a well. He goes to the water and Rachel comes, and she draws water and she gives it to him. And then Moses: when Moses has to flee out of Egypt for killing that Egyptian man and he has to run for his life before he comes back in to lead the people out of bondage of Egypt, he goes and he meets the daughter of the Midianite, whose daughter is Sephora, and he marries her. He meets her at the well. He asks her for water; she gives him the water. He goes back; he meets her father. The father offers her as his bride.
So Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Sephora: they meet at a well. So you can wonder: Is Jesus meeting his bride, also at a well? And there’s a sense in which the answer is yes. Yes, Jesus is meeting his bride at the well, because Jesus’ bride is sinful humanity. Jesus’ bride are the sinners that he came to save. Jesus’ bride are the whole of humanity that will belong to him and become his bride and go with him to the house of his Father to live in God’s kingdom forever and ever, where he himself reigns as the king.
Here, many interpreters say that this Samaritan woman, who is traditionally called Photini, which means the baptized one, the illumined one, she encounters Jesus. And then, when they first talk about water, then they talk about marriage. He tells her to go get her husband. She says, “I don’t have a husband.” He said, “You’re speaking truly, because the guy you’re living with now is not your husband. You’ve had five husbands.”
This Samaritan woman is about as bad as you can get for a Jew, because, first of all, she’s a Samaritan, which the Jews call dogs. They weren’t even supposed to talk with them. That’s why the woman is surprised that he asks for a drink. [She] says, “How can you, being a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” But he talks to her. And then she’s a sinful woman, and a Samaritan, heretical woman, and sinful. She’s not living with the guy who’s her husband.
So she epitomizes somehow, she symbolizes perfectly, she’s a perfect paradigm of that person for whom Christ comes into the world, the one that needs to be illumined, the one that needs to be saved, the one who is living in sin, the one who is far from God, the one who is not a member of Israel and Judah, who is a heretical one, worse than a Gentile, so to speak. So there is a sense in which Jesus indeed is revealing himself as the Bridegroom at the well, Jacob’s well in Samaria in Sychar, when he meets this Samaritan woman.
You have this imagery of marriage and bridegroom and Jesus called “the Bridegroom.” “How can you fast when the bridegroom is present?” John the Baptist says, “I’m not the bridegroom; I’m the friend of the bridegroom. He is the Christ; I am the forerunner.” This is what you have in the New Testament.
As I said, this is not surprising, because in the Old Testament, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the imagery of bride and bridegroom and husband and wife is pervasive. It’s by far the most-used simile, metaphor, analogy, symbol—whatever word you want to use for the relationship of the Lord God and his people.
Sometimes people thing that the main imagery for God in the holy Scripture in the Bible is Father, but that’s simply not true. The imagery of Father and Son is there in the Old Testament, but not very strongly, and mostly in terms of what is going to happen in the future: when the Son of God comes, then all people will become sons of God in him and be able to relate to God as Abba, Father. But in the Old Covenant, in the Scriptures of the Old Covenant, the main imagery is husband and wife, bridegroom and bride.
So let’s look at some examples of this kind of imagery. We can just begin with Prophet Isaiah. The Prophet Isaiah, in the very, very beginning of the writing of Prophet Isaiah, already in the first chapter, you have these words:
How the faithful city has become a harlot! She that was full of justice and righteousness. Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers!
And then, that means that God’s people in Jerusalem is called a harlot, and a harlot means a woman who is not a bride, who is not faithful. It’s an adulterous bride. So you have that imagery just in the very first chapter, of fidelity: bridegroom and bride. But then it even becomes very more clearly expressed in the Prophet Isaiah. Fifth chapter: “Let me sing for my beloved a love song concerning his vineyard. My beloved had a vineyard,” God is saying, and that vineyard is Israel, but then he says that the people of Israel start playing the harlot. They go after the false gods; they worship the Baalim. They are not faithful to the Lord God who called them, who called them his beloved.
So in Isaiah, at the end of Isaiah, you have this imagery being used absolutely clearly in the end, without any doubt at all, that the Lord God is the husband and Israel and the world, so to speak, are his wife. Here I’ll just read to you from Isaiah 54; it’s the servant songs of Isaiah, where it says:
Sing, O barren one who did not bear. Break forth unto singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in travail. For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married, says the Lord.
Then it continues: “For your maker is your husband; the Lord of hosts is his name.” It can’t get clearer than that.
Your maker is your husband; the Lord of hosts is his name, and the holy one of Israel is your redeemer. The God of the whole earth he is called, for the Lord has called you like a wife, forsaken and grieved in spirit like a wife of youth, when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love, I will have compassion on you, says your Lord, your redeemer.
Who, the prophet says, is your husband: “For your maker is your husband; the Lord of hosts is his name, and he has chosen you as his bride.”
Now you have exactly the same thing in Jeremiah. Right from the beginning of Jeremiah, you have this same imagery that is used, where Jeremiah again says, the prophet says that the people were chosen as a bride. So in the very first line of the second chapter of Jeremiah, you have this written:
The word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the Lord: I remember your devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Israel was holy to the Lord. The firstfruits of his harvest: all those who ate of it became guilty; evil came upon them.’ ”
So it says the people followed him as their bridegroom, and they had love for him as a bride. But then you have the same thing being said, and that is that the people forsake their bridegroom; they forsake their husband. They go off after false gods. They commit adultery with the Baalim, with the idols, with the Canaanite fertility gods. So this is what is written in Jeremiah, still in the second chapter. It says (Jeremiah 2:13):
“The people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me (abandoned me, gone after false gods), the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”
Then it says:
“Yea, long ago you broke your yoke and burst your bonds, and you said, ‘I will not serve.’ ”
Then it has this imagery of conjugal love:
“Yea, upon every high hill and under every green tree you bowed down as a harlot.”
You lay down on the ground like a harlot.
“Yet I planted you, a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become wild vine? Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me,” says the Lord God.
“How can you say, ‘I am not defiled, I have not gone after the Baals’? Look at your way in the valley. Know what you have done.”
Because it says that she has shamed God. Israel has shamed him by loving strangers, by loving the false god in heat. And then he compares Israel to a wild ass in the wilderness, in her heat, sniffing the wind, who cannot restrain her lust, going after all those who are strangers and false gods and idols, and forsaking the true God who loves her, who is her husband. So you have sentences like these:
“How well you direct your course to seek lovers, so that even to wicked women you have taught your ways. Also on your skirts is found the lifeblood of guiltless poor.”
And it says:
“I will bring you to judgment for saying, ‘I have not sinned,’ for you have sinned.
“If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her? Will not that land be greatly polluted? But you have played the harlot, the adulterous wife, with many lovers, and would you return to me?” says the Lord.
“Lift up your eyes to the bare heights and see! Where have you not been lain with?”
Boy, what a sentence: “Where have you not been lain with?”
“By the wayside you have sat awaiting lovers like an Arab in the wilderness. You have polluted the land with your vile harlotry. Therefore the showers have been withheld, and the spring rain has not come down; yet you have a harlot’s brow, and you refuse to be ashamed.
Then it even continues:
In the days of king Josiah: “Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel…”
“Adulterous”—you see, “faithless” can be “adulterous.”
“...how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the harlot?
“And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me’; but she did not return, and her false sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce; yet her false sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the harlot. Because harlotry was so light to her, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stones and trees. Yet for all this her false sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense,” says the Lord.
And the Lord said to me, “O adulterous, faithless Israel has shown herself less guilty than false Judah. Go, and proclaim these words forward to the north, and say, ‘Return, adulterous Israel, says the Lord. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful. I will not look on you with [anger] for ever.”
So there is the faithless one. It’s written:
“Surely as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so have you been faithless to me, O house of Israel,” says the Lord.
Now, this imagery continues in the other prophets. In Hosea, for example, Hosea is ordered by God to marry a harlot and to stay with an adulterous wife (Hosea 1:2).
The Lord first spoke through Hosea; the Lord said to Hosea, “Go take to yourself a wife of harlotry. Have children of harlotry, for the land commits great harlotry by forsaking the Lord.
And Hosea says, “How can I stay with this woman? My children are not my children? She’s having babies, but they’re not from me. She’s playing the harlot.” So you have in chapter two of Hosea:
[Say to your brother,] “My people,” and to your sister, say, “She has obtained pity.”
“Plead with your mother, plead—for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband—that she put away her harlotry from her face, and her adultery from between her breasts; lest I strip her naked and make her as on the day in which she was born, and make her like a wilderness, and set her like a parched land, and slay her with thirst. Upon her children also I will have no pity, because they are children of harlotry.
For their mother has played the harlot; she who conceived them has acted shamefully. For she said, ‘I will go after my lovers, and I will give them my bread and my water, my [wool] and my flax, my oil and my drink. I will give it to my lovers. I will go and return to my first husband.’
But will he take her? And God says to him: “You take her. Stay faithful to her. Even though she goes after all these false lovers and forgets the Lord.”
And “my husband” in that day, says the Lord, you will call me, “My husband,” and no longer will you call me, ‘My Baalim, my idol.’
I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know that I am God.
So he says the same thing as Isaiah and Jeremiah: “You were unfaithful; I remain faithful. You go after the idols and the stones and the wood and commit adulteries like a stallion in heat and a wild ass on every high place and under every green tree, but I will remain faithful to you. I will not reject you.”
In this sense you could say, as one scholar once wrote, in the Holy Scripture, God is a cuckold. A cuckold is a person whose wife is not faithful to him. He has a wife, but she’s not faithful. And this is repeated again and again in the Prophet Hosea. Read it, and you will see. I’ll just read one more toward the end of the book, in chapter nine.
Rejoice not, O Israel! Exult not like the peoples; for you have played the harlot, forsaking your God. You have loved a harlot’s hire upon all threshing floors.
So the covenant of love, the covenant of husband and wife becoming one flesh and one life, this is broken by faithless Israel. Probably the most violent place where this is put in the Holy Scripture is in Ezekiel, the 16th chapter of Ezekiel. And in the 16th chapter of Ezekiel, this is what is written. It’s just absolutely amazing. This is what the Lord says:
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, make known to Jerusalem her abominations, and say, Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem: Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite, and your mother a Hittite. But as for your birth, on the day you were born your navel string was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor swathed with [bands]. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you; but you were cast out on the open field; you were abhorred, on the very day you were born.
“But I, God (the Lord God, Yahweh) passed by you, and saw you [weltering] in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live, and grow up like a plant of the field.’ And you grew up and you became tall and you arrived at full maidenhood; your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown…
And I’m sure he doesn’t mean the hair on her head.
... and yet you were naked and you were bare.
“When I passed by you again I looked upon you, and behold, you were at the age for love; and I spread my skirt over you, and covered your nakedness: yea, I plighted my troth to you and entered into a covenant with you,” says the Lord God, “and you became mine.
“Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you, and anointed you with oil. I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with leather, I swathed you in fine linens and covered you with silk. I decked you with ornaments, and put bracelets on your arms, and a chain on your neck. I put a ring in your nose, and earrings in your ears, and a beautiful crown on your head.
“Thus you were decked with gold and silver; and your raiment was of fine linen, and silk, and embroidered cloth; you ate fine flour and honey and oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful, and came to regal estate. And your renown went forth among the all nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor which I had bestowed upon you,” said the Lord God.
But then it happens. Then it happens:
“But you trusted in your beauty, and played the harlot because of your renown; you lavished your harlotries on any passer-by. You took some of your garments, and made for yourself gaily decked shrines, and on them played the harlot; the like has never been, nor ever shall be again. You took your fair jewels of my gold and my silver, which I gave to you, and made for yourself images of men, and with them you played the harlot; you took your embroidered garments to cover them, and set my oil and my incense before them. Also my bread which I gave you—I fed you with fine flour and oil and honey—you set before them for a pleasing odor,” says the Lord God.
“And you took your sons and your daughters, whom you had borne to me, and these you sacrificed to them to be devoured. Were your harlotries so small a matter that you slaughtered my children and delivered them up as an offering by fire to them (the idols)? And in all your abominations and your harlotries you did not remember the days of your youth, when you were naked, bare, weltering in your blood, and I took you as my own and betrothed you to myself.
And then it continues like this, just for pages: You prostituted your beauty, multiplying your harlotries, with the Syrians, the Philistines. You were not like a harlot because you didn’t even take money.
“Yet you were not like a harlot because you scorned hire. Adulterous wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband! Men give gifts to all harlots, but you gave your gifts to all your lovers, bribing them to come to you from every side [for] your harlotries, so you were different from other women in your harlotries. None solicited you to play the harlot, but you gave yourself to harlotry, while no hire was given to you; therefore you were different. Therefore, O harlot, hear the word of the Lord…”
Then, of course, God predicts that he’s going to be faithful to her. He’s going to remain faithful to her. He’s never going to abandon her.
We heard Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea. This is the imagery that we have. And in the Old Testament we also have the most erotic, conjugal love-writing in the entire Bible. It’s called the [Song] of Solomon. Sometimes called the Canticle of Canticles or the Song of Songs. Some people call this the most mystical book of the whole Bible. Bernard of Clairvaux, a Westerner who wrote a commentary on it, he said that. Gregory of Nyssa wrote a commentary on it. Simeon the New Theologian used it. Origen wrote a commentary on it, on the Song of Songs. And it’s a love story. You had to be 30 years old to read it or to hear it in Israel. That was the rule; that was the law. It wasn’t for children. And this is how it begins:
O, that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is oil poured out; therefore the maidens love you. Draw me after you, let us make haste.
And then it continues in this manner. It probably was originally a marriage poem, a marriage poem of a lover and the beloved, and the beloved and the lover, and it’s all taken as an allegory for Israel and God, for Christ and the Church, for the soul and the Lord, this erotic imagery of love. I’ll read the beginning of [the] third chapter (Song of Solomon 3:1, 2:5-7, 3:1-3, 2:10):
Upon my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves, for I am sick with love. O, that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me! I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the hinds of the field, that you stir not up nor awaken love until it pleases.
I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but [he] gave no answer. “I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves.” The watchmen found me, as they went about in the city. “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?”
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away with me.”
And so it’s a story of a lover seeking the beloved, and the beloved seeking the lover. And in this poem the bridegroom… Actually, from this is sung even at Orthodox weddings, “Draw near, draw near, O bride of Lebanon.” It comes from the [Song] of Solomon. It’s sung at Orthodox Church weddings, at least in the Russian church it is.
And in this love poem, this erotic, conjugal love poem, the lover calls the beloved, “My kinswoman, my sister, my friend, my beloved, and my bride”:
You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride; you have ravished my heart with the glance of your eyes. With one jewel of your necklace, how sweet is your love, my sister, my bride! Your lips distill nectar, my sister, my bride. Honey and milk are under your tongue. Your garden, locked, is my sister, my bride, a spring locked, a fountain sealed. Let my beloved come to his [garden]. I come to my garden, my sister, my bride. I slept, but my heart was awake. My beloved is knocking. Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one, my kinswoman, my friend.
These are all names of the bride that the bridegroom bestows upon his beloved. And then it says:
I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine. If you find my beloved, if you tell me I am sick with love, for love is stronger even than death. I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.
And so it’s a love poem, and you have all these wonderful words: my kinswoman, my friend, my beloved, my sister, my dove, my perfect one, my bride. And it’s a bridegroom and a bride in the conjugal union of love. This is considered to be a prefiguration for the love of Christ and the Church.
When we get to Christ and the Church, he’s called the Bridegroom. I already mentioned this: he is called the Bridegroom. That’s his first title. And in the Scripture, you have the wedding-feast, the bridal chamber used as an imagery, where Christ is taking us with himself into the bridal chamber. St. Paul uses that very same imagery. He says in II Corinthians 11: “I feel a divine jealousy for you, O Corinthians, for I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one Husband.” And then he says that this is the only husband you have, but St. Paul says, “I am the one who betroths you. I marry you to Christ.”
And then, of course, in the Letter to the Ephesians, which is read at an Orthodox wedding service, you have the great imagery of Christ and the Church as a bridegroom and a bride, as a husband and as a wife. And we are all familiar with that, hopefully, but if we’re not, let’s refamiliarize [ourselves]: where you have St. Paul writing to the Ephesians (Ephesians 5:22-32):
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is head of the Church, his body, and is himself its savior. As the Church is subject to Christ, let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her…
And Christ was crucified for the Church. He dies for the sake of his bride.
He loved the Church, gave himself up for her that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself, his bride, in splendor without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
Even so, husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself, for no man ever hates his own flesh, nourishes it and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man leaves his father and his [mother] and is joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is a great one (this is a great, profound mystery), and I am speaking that it refers to Christ and the Church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she reverences her husband.
So you have Christ as the Bridegroom, laying down his life for his bride, giving himself for her, and then you have the imagery like from the prophets: to wash her, to cleanse her, to purify her, to adorn her, to become one flesh with her, and then to take her home to the house of God his Father, to live forever in the kingdom of God in the bridal chamber in heaven.
In the New Testament also, this is how the whole Bible ends. The whole Bible ends, if you read [the] Book of Revelation, chapter 19 just to the end, chapter 22, the whole imagery there is about bridegroom and bride. The whole imagery there is about bridegroom and bride; for example, in the end of the 18th chapter, it speaks already about the bridegroom and the bride, and the bride coming, and then you get to 19: “Hallelujah! Salvation and power and glory belong to our God! Hallelujah!” And they all sing, “Hallelujah!” and bow down. And then it says (Revelation 19:6):
“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.”
Then the angel says, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And the marriage supper of the Lamb is when Christ becomes one with his people. So it continues that way. Then, when you finally get to the end of the Book of Revelation, you have the kingdom of God coming down from heaven, like a bride prepared for her husband. It is written (Revelation 21:9-10):
“Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And the Spirit carried me away to the great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, adorned like a bride for her husband.
So this New Jerusalem that comes from heaven, the city of God, the kingdom of God, it is compared in the Holy Scripture to the bride, the bride of Jesus Christ who is the Lamb. Then the very book ends by saying, “And the Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let him who hears come.” We are all invited to enter into the bridal chamber, and the final prayer is “Come, Lord Jesus. You are our Bridegroom. Come to take us to yourself as your beloved bride.” That’s the Holy Scripture. That’s the imagery that’s used in the Bible.
We could even go one step further with this, and that is that when Jesus is being crucified, in the Gospel according to St. Mark and the Gospel according to St. Matthew, when Jesus is on the Cross, he screams with a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” In Hebrew, it’s “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani”; Aramaic: “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani.” It’s found in Mark; it’s found in Matthew. In fact, these are the only words of Christ from the Cross in Mark and Matthew. You have three words in Luke and you have three sentences in John, but none of them are this one, which is the same in Mark and Matthew.
Why I mention that is because, when Jesus screams from the Cross, he’s actually referring to Psalm 22 (21 [LXX], 22 [Masoretic]), and we’ve reflected on this already on Ancient Faith Radio; we won’t continue, but I would like to repeat right now and stress that one point. I learned from one scholarly book I read by a man named Samuel Terrien, that that verb, “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani,—Why have you left me? Why have you abandoned me? Why have you forsaken me?” that that verb “abandon” or “leave” or “forsake,” it’s only used one other place in the entire Hebrew Scripture, and that place is Genesis (Genesis 2:24), where it says that a man will leave his father and his mother and cleave unto his wife, and the two will become one flesh (basar echad), and what God has joined together no man can rend asunder, no man can separate.
So that verb, “to leave, to forsake, to abandon,” it’s connected originally with marriage. The Father abandons his Son and leaves his Son and tells his Son to go and cleave to his wife. And the Son abandons the house of his Father and his mother. He leaves it; he forsakes it, in order to go and to cleave to his wife.
So you can dare to say that when Jesus is hanging on the Cross, and he cries with a loud voice, “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani—My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” we could imagine that God the Father answers him. We can be bold enough and dare to imagine that God the Father would answer him and say to him, “My Son, my beloved, my chosen, you know why I must abandon you on the Cross. I must abandon you so that you can go and cleave unto your wife and become one flesh with her.”
Who is the wife, the bride of the Son of God who is the Bridegroom and the Husband? Who is that wife? Well, we know already, very well. The prophets tell us: it’s adulterous Israel. It’s harlot humanity. It’s all the human race of the Israel and the Gentiles who worship false gods and do not worship the one, true, and living God who is their husband and loves them like a husband and has chosen them as a bride to love and ravish with beauty and glory and splendor and joy forever and ever and ever. That bride is symbolized by the Samaritan woman, a heretic, a Gentile, a woman, a sinful woman, a prostitute-type woman, a harlot-type woman—that is the bride of Christ. He came for the sinners, and we are those sinners. And that’s why he’s called the Bridegroom, and that’s why we are his bride.
So it’s a wonderful title of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, God’s Son, God’s Word in human flesh. He’s becoming human to chase us even into the pit of Hades. As St. Paul said, “He who was righteous became sin for us.” We’ll think about that later: Jesus as sin, but he becomes sin for us, that through his identification with sinners, we could become the righteousness of God. He becomes curse for us, because curséd are all those who do not keep the commandments of God. Cursed are those who are crucified and nailed to a cross by Gentiles. He becomes curse for us so that in his being curse, we could become the blessedness of God.
Then he becomes dead for us. He dies for us, to prove to us that he loves us to the end, as Christ says. St. John Chrysostom in his [second] homily on Eutropius, said, “The Son of God loves us like a young man madly in love with a whore, madly in love with a prostitute.” He loves us like Hosea’s supposed to love his unfaithful wife, to the total end, never being faithless, never being betraying. As the hymn in Timothy says, “If you are faithless, I remain faithful, because I, your Lord God, cannot deny myself” (cf. II Timothy 2:13).
He is faithful to us even unto death so that we could become his bride, and he becomes one flesh with us in the Incarnation. He takes our flesh; he takes our humanity; he takes our sin; he takes our fallenness. He enters into Hell with us, into the very realm of the dead, so that he could raise us up and take us home into that bridal chamber in the heavens.
In the Orthodox Church, this is what is specifically celebrated during Holy Week. When we celebrate the Holy Pascha as we all know, the Passion and the death and the Resurrection of Christ, that whole celebration begins by naming Jesus as the Bridegroom. The hymn that begins the whole Passion celebration is the hymn:
Behold, the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night, and blessed is the servant whom he shall find watching, and again unworthy is the servant whom he shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, and do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given up to death, lest you should be shut out of the kingdom, but rouse yourself, crying, “Holy, holy, holy art thou, O God! Through the Theotokos, have mercy on us!”
So Jesus is coming like in the parable, as the Bridegroom at midnight. And in those same services during Holy Week, we sing at four of the matins of Holy Week the hymn of light, when the light comes up in the morning and the sun is beginning to shine, we sing what is called the “hymn of light.” And the hymn of light during Holy Week is this:
I see your bridal chamber, all adorned, O my Savior, and I have no wedding garment, that I may enter. O Giver of Life, enlighten the vesture of my soul and save me.
So we see the bridal chamber of the Bridegroom, and the Bridegroom is Christ. We want to enter into that chamber with him and become one flesh with him, become his beloved, become his bride, become the one who becomes everything he is in this union of love. So, on the Cross of Christ, all that happens. Thérèse of Lisieux, a famous Catholic saint, said, “The Cross is the bed on which God consummates his love affair with his creaturely bride.”
We have hymns like these in the services of the Orthodox Church during the Passion Week. For Great and Holy Tuesday:
Let us love the Bridegroom, O brothers and sisters. Let us keep our lamps aflame with virtues and true faith so that we, like the wise virgins of the Lord, may be ready to enter with him into the marriage-feast. For the Bridegroom, as God, grants unto all of us an incorruptible crown.
Then you have another one that goes like this:
How shall I, the unworthy one, appear in the splendor of your saints? If I dare to enter into your bridal chamber with them, my garments will betray me. They are unfit for a wedding. The angels will cast me out in chains. But I beg you, Lord, cleanse the filth of my soul, O Lord, and save me in your love for mankind.
And another hymn:
O Christ, the Bridegroom, my soul has slumbered in laziness. I have no lamp aflame with virtues. Like the foolish virgins I wander aimlessly when it is time for work. But do not close your compassionate heart to me, O Master! Rouse me; shake off my heavy sleep. Lead me with the wise virgins into the bridal chamber, that I may hear the pure voice of those that feast and cry out unceasingly, “O Lord, glory to thee!”
Then, one more:
You are more beautiful than all men, O Bridegroom Christ! You have invited us to the spiritual banquet of your bridal chamber. Strip me of the ugly garments of my sins as I participate in your Passion. Adorn me with the glorious robe of your divine beauty that proclaims me as a guest in your kingdom, O merciful Lord.
So we not only enter into the marriage-feast as guests, but in other imagery, we enter into the bridal chamber as the bride, to become one flesh, one spirit, one life with Christ himself, with God incarnate himself. And therefore, being the wife of the Lamb, the bride of the Lamb, we have the one, true, and living God as our Abba, Father, and we live forever in the mansions of God, in the coming kingdom, with the whole of humanity, and in a sense the whole creation now becoming one flesh with Christ himself, and living with him as his beloved bride.
He is our Bridegroom, and we are his bride. He is married. “The land is called married,” Isaiah says. It’s no longer desolate. He is married, and he is married to us, and he’s faithful to us, and the covenant is kept. No matter how sinful, how apostate, how ridiculous, how wretched, how crazy, how insane we become; no matter how much we flee from him and run away from him, he chases after us; chases after us and finds us in the pit of Hades, in the realm of death, and there he consummates his love affair with us, and he makes us—if we so surrender to his love—his beloved bride.
He is our Bridegroom. Christ is the Bridegroom, more beautiful than any, divinely beautiful. And he chooses us as his bride so that we could share that very same beauty, that very same glory, the very same splendor, the very same life and reality with him, forever, as one flesh, husband and wife, bridegroom and bride.