July 28, 2013

Holy Bridegroom-Living

One might ask after a couple months spent exploring the metaphor of the Holy Bridegroom, what difference does it make to me in my life? Perhaps none, perhaps a lot. The realization that our God has chosen, redeemed, and betrothed each of us as Bride should make some difference. Understanding, even vaguely, that you and I are each individually Beloved enough to be Betrothed to the Holy Bridegroom is rather awe-some. Too often we see ourselves (or myself) coated with too much ‘original sin’, or ‘today’s mistakes’, to be lovable much less Beloved and chosen. Throughout the Bible we see that God does not pick the sinless or best or strongest. God choses men and women who are very flawed, but loves them into a new relationship with the Holy Bridegroom.

In Hosea 2:16, God says, “In that day, you will call me ‘my husband’, you will no longer call me ‘my master’”. God is speaking to the Children of Israel who have forgotten the relationship they were called to from the beginning. But God doesn’t give up. He promises that they will again be in that intimate relationship.
We, too, are in a new and more intimate relationship with God as Holy Bridegroom. The sometimes maligned passage from Ephesians 5:21-33 gives guidelines on living in that relationship with God and each other. I say maligned because sometimes the citation is pointed at as ‘keeping women in their place.’ If you read it carefully though, you might see it is reciprocal. As the first verse says we are to “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The rest of the passage explains how that comes about. It ties back to the ancient understanding of ‘lordship’ and duties of Jewish husbands as ‘lord’ of the household (see June 23).
The Ephesians reading continues with admonitions to the women, comparing their lives to the church’s relationship to Christ. To have the marriage relationship compared to the perfected relationship of God and Church (not the current, imperfect one) is rather special. "Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 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.”
Notice that the husband is ‘head’, i.e. ‘lord’ over the wife in the sense of caring for, providing, protecting. The husband is not lord in the ‘I’m the boss and do as I say’ power-grabbing way. Verses 25-29 expound on the responsibilities of the husband. “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…”
It seems to me that in this citation, despite popular (mis)conception, the husband has the harder task. He is ordered to be Christ-like with his wife and ‘give himself up’ because ”husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies.” It is important to notice that Paul says “he who loves his wife loves himself”. Rather another twist on the “love your neighbor as yourself” commandment.
Paul concludes by saying, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” He admits, “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.”
Throughout these meditations on the Holy Bridegroom, we’ve seen how God chose and then redeemed us as Bride. This is “in order to make [us] holy…to present the [Bride] to himself in splendor…so [we] may be holy and without blemish.” While the Church as a whole is the Bride of Christ, we are also, each of us Beloved and individually a bride of the Holy Bridegroom, “because we are members of his body.”
As a member of the Body of Christ, our relationship with one another should be of “loving [our] neighbor as self”. We are as John Donne said, “a part of the main”* and as Paul stated we are “individually members one of another” (Romans 12:5) We may not live into the relationship with the Holy Bridegroom perfectly, but we can be assured that the Bridegroom won’t give up on us!
*No Man Is An Island

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Next week starts a new train of thought…based on some of the Psalms.

July 21, 2013

Holy Bridegroom-Redemption

Union with the Holy Bridegroom is only completed by the redemption of the Bride.

Throughout the Bible we are told again and again that God redeems us, His people. It starts when God gives Adam and Eve clothing and preserves humanity through Noah’s ark, but the great saving act of the Old Testament is, of course, the Exodus itself. God says, “Therefore, say to the Israelites: 'I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment’” (Exodus 6:6).

This act of redemption is recited again and again because it is so pivotal in the Redemption History of the People of God. In 1 Chronicles 17:21, we hear, “And who is like your people Israel--the one nation on earth whose God went out to redeem a people for himself, and to make a name for yourself, and to perform great and awesome wonders by driving out nations from before your people, whom you redeemed from Egypt?” In Isaiah 44:23, nature is called on to witness the redeeming work. Sing for joy, you heavens, for the LORD has done this; shout aloud, you earth beneath. Burst into song, you mountains, you forests and all your trees, for the LORD has redeemed Jacob, he displays his glory in Israel.”
There are different forms of redeeming mentioned in the Old Testament. The redeeming of a person sold into slavery, for instance and the redemption of the first born by a sacrifice. (Read Leviticus if you want to delve into all the different laws and forms.) In the Book of Ruth, we see Boaz redeeming Ruth as his bride, along with the field of Elimelech. He then said to the next-of-kin, ‘Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our kinsman Elimelech. So I thought I would tell you of it, and say: Buy it in the presence of those sitting here, and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you will not, tell me, so that I may know; for there is no one prior to you to redeem it, and I come after you.’ So he said, ‘I will redeem it.’ Then Boaz said, ‘The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance.’ At this, the next-of-kin said, ‘I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.’…Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, ‘Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance, in order that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place; today you are witnesses.’ (Ruth 4:2-10)

In a similar act, we hear from Isaiah,But now, this is what the LORD says-- he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.’” (Isaiah 43:1, see also 44:22-23). A few chapters later, Isaiah records, “For this is what the LORD says: ‘You were sold for nothing, and without money you will be redeemed.’” (Isaiah 52:3) This is the Holy Bridegroom speaking. The One who will indeed ultimately redeem the Bride for His own, through the cross!

The Holy Bridegroom, like Boaz, must redeem the bride from another owner. Zechariah understood this when he sang, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them.” We would much rather ‘do our own thing’, than be open to the loving guidance of the Holy Bridegroom. Paul says in Galatians 3:14, “He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” In the Letter to Titus, the same theme continues, “[He] gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:14)

The Holy Bridegroom redeemed us as Bride. What does that mean in day-to-day life? One thing it means is that we no longer have to strive so hard to work out our own redemption. We don’t have to ‘save’ the world by ourselves. There’s a song by Scott Wesley Brown that the Gaithers performed in the early 2000’s, which reminds me of Who really is in charge…and it is not me, but it IS the Holy Bridegroom.

He Will Carry You (Scott Wesley Brown)
There is no problem too big
God cannot solve it
There is no mountain too tall
God cannot move it

There is no storm too dark
God cannot calm it
There is no sorrow too deep
He cannot soothe it

Oh, if He carried the weight of the world upon His shoulders
I know my brother that He will carry you
if He carried the weight of the world upon His shoulders
I know my sister that He will carry you
He said, "Come on to me all who are weary
And I will give you rest "

If you'd like to hear the song, This version of the video has some cool art.

Next week we’ll round out our discussion of the Holy Bridegroom.

July 14, 2013

Our Betrothal Feast with the Holy Bridegroom

Now we come to the image that got me started down this meditation path-the Betrothal Feast, or as we normally call it, the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the Last Supper…

Back on Maundy Thursday, the day in the church calendar when we remember Jesus’ final meal with his disciples, I was struck by the idea that what we are really celebrating is a Marriage Feast. Of course the real Marriage Supper of the Lamb will be in the final resurrection as outlined in Revelation, but each time we celebrate a Communion service, we get a foretaste of that Banquet.
In the words of the service we are invited to remember what happened that night 2000 years ago. I esp. like the wording from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, Eucharistic Prayer D:

When the hour had come for him to be glorified by you, his heavenly Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end; at supper with them he took bread, and when he had given thanks to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, "Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me."
After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, "Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me."

Father, we now celebrate this memorial of our redemption. Recalling Christ's death and his descent among the dead, proclaiming his resurrection and ascension to your right hand, awaiting his coming in glory; and offering to you, from the gifts you have given us, this bread and this cup, we praise you and we bless you.
Lord, we pray that in your goodness and mercy your Holy  Spirit may descend upon us, and upon these gifts, sanctifying them and showing them to be holy gifts for your holy people, the bread of life and the cup of salvation, the Body and Blood of your Son Jesus Christ. Grant that all who share this bread and cup may become one body and one spirit, a living sacrifice in Christ, to the praise of your Name.

An ancient form, “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” that I ran across (on Facebook of all places) gives these instructions: Celebrate the Eucharist as follows: Say over the cup: “we give you thanks, Father, for the holy vine of David, your servant, which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be glory for ever.”

Over the broken bread say: “we give you thanks, Father, for the life and the knowledge which you have revealed to us through Jesus your servant. To you be glory for ever. As this broken bread scattered on the mountains was gathered and became one, so too, may your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. For glory and power are yours through Jesus Christ for ever.”
When you finish the meal, offer thanks in this manner: “We thank you, holy Father, for your name which you enshrined in our hearts. We thank you for the knowledge and faith and immortality which you revealed to us through your servant Jesus. To you be glory for ever. Almighty ruler, you created all things for the sake of your name; you gave men food and drink to enjoy so that they might give you thanks. Now you have favored us through Jesus your servant with spiritual food and drink as well as with eternal life. Above all we thank you because you are mighty. To you be glory for ever.

“Remember, Lord, your Church and deliver her from all evil. Perfect her in your love; and, once she has been sanctified, gather her together from the four winds into the kingdom which you have prepared for her. For power and glory are yours for ever. May grace come and this world pass away! Hosanna to the God of David. If anyone is holy, let him come. If anyone is not, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen.”
There are also some warnings in this old version: “Do not let anyone eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who have been baptized in the name of the Lord. For the statement of the Lord applies here also: Do not give to dogs what is holy. On the Lord’s day, when you have been gathered together, break bread and celebrate the Eucharist. But first confess your sins so that your offering may be pure. If anyone has a quarrel with his neighbor, that person should not join you until he has been reconciled. Your sacrifice must not be defiled. In this regard, the Lord has said: In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice. I am a great king, says the Lord, and my name is great among the nations.”

In all current forms of the Communion prayer we are commanded to do this in “remembrance of [Christ]”. In the Jewish culture remember has a deeper connotation than just thinking back on an experience. Instead, like in the Passover, the actual historical event is brought present each time the ceremony is enacted. In the same way, we are present with Christ and the 12 each time we come to Communion. We are present with the saints and sinners throughout the ages who have shared the Supper in many times and places. We are sharing the Bread and Wine with St. Paul and St. Francis, with Constantine and with a humble peasant. We are sharing the Body of Christ with martyrs and with persecutors, with slave and free men (and women). We are in the great cloud of witnesses throughout the ages as we hold the Bread in our hands, whether it is a wafer or a piece of a loaf of bread. We are in the company of great and small at the Banqueting table when we consume the Blood of Christ, be it as wine or grape juice, from a chalice or in a cup. It doesn’t matter if we are worshipping with a thousand or a few, the Holy Bridegroom is in our midst and we are part of the Holy Banquet stretching from Jerusalem to the present.
I think that is pretty amazing. If you really think about it; it can leave you rather breathless and in awe. Thanks be to God who “loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” and gave us the way of remembering, of coming together to not just reenact but to make alive in our day and time the Betrothal Feast.  

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll look at the Holy Bridegroom’s work of redeeming the Bride.

July 7, 2013

Engagement vs Betrothal

During June this blog has been exploring the metaphor of the Holy Bridegroom as one way we are in relationship with God. Over the weeks, we’ve seen that like the brides of old, we are Chosen to be the bride of Christ, not through any action of our own or any special worth. We are chosen in and by Love ‘to bear fruit that will last’. The Holy Bridegroom is our Lord, not in the sense of having power over us, but in the sense of nurturing and protecting and providing all our needs.

Today we’ll look at the Betrothal, which was (and is) in Jewish culture very important. It is different from an ‘engagement’ because it is a vow spoken in the presence of witnesses and is as binding as the wedding vows spoken later.
Nearly all societies have a period of time between the choosing of a mate and the actual consummation of the wedding. For instance, Celtic tribes had a ‘handfast’ ceremony which took place during the Feast of Lughnasadh in early August. This was a seemingly rather random way of choosing your mate. Marriageable young men and women lined up on opposite sides of a gate in a wall. They each put a hand through a hole in the gate. They were then ‘handfasted’ in trial marriage to the one whose hand they grasped. They lived together for a year. If it didn’t work out, the couple could ‘break up’ at the next Lughnasadh by standing back to back and walking away from each other.

Young (and not so young) men and women announce their engagement to family and friends every day around the world. Full of eager plans for the wedding, they may or may not pause to think about the life-long implications of getting into a permanent relationship with another person. An engagement, like the handfast ceremony, can be ended at any time by either party.
A betrothal, on the other hand, is all about binding vows between a man and woman before witnesses. A Betrothal is a legal covenant. An actual document is drawn up laying out the bride price and a ceremony called Kiddushin (sanctification) is performed. The groom recites the words "Thou art consecrated to me according to the law of Moses and of Israel” and places a ring on the bride’s finger. Wine is shared, but the man and woman do not live under the same roof until the actual marriage. During the Betrothal period, the groom prepares a home for his bride and the bride prepares clothing and household items. The only way to end a betrothal is by a divorce, which must be initiated by the man.

Once the Betrothal vows are said, the man and woman are considered to be husband and wife, even though they don’t live together until the wedding itself. If one dies, the other is the widow/er. If the woman is unfaithful, the man can have her punished as an adulteress. We see this in the Nativity narrative in Matthew, when Joseph struggles with how to deal with Mary’s pregnancy.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25)

Joseph had several choices as the wronged husband. He could have had Mary stoned for infidelity, he could have divorced her publically and shamed her before the city, or he could have (as he contemplated) divorced her quietly. The final option was claim the child was his and marry her immediately. Of course, we know this is what he did. (I thought his story was so interesting that my book Mary, My Love tells the Nativity narrative and beyond, from Joseph’s point of view.) Because the Betrothal itself was as binding as the actual marriage, pretty much all Joseph had to do was take Mary into his home after he made his decision.
How does all this interesting history about betrothals have anything to do with our Faith and with our relationship to the Holy Bridegroom? We are betrothed to God. This is more than an engagement that either side can break off. It is a vowed relationship made by God from the beginning and spelled out in Hosea 2:19-20 where God says, “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness and you shall know the Lord.” In Jeremiah 2:2, God tells Jeremiah; “Go and proclaim…‘Thus says the LORD: "I remember you, The kindness of your youth, The love of your betrothal, When you went after Me in the wilderness, In a land not sown. Israel was holy to the Lord…”

We are betrothed to and by God. The Bride price has been paid for us. The 'Bride Price' is from the Groom to the Bride, not her family. It essentially made her independent of her birth family in order to be wed. You may recall that in Genesis 29, Jacob works for Laban for 7 years to earn Rachel as wife. Because of Laban’s trickery he ends up actually working 14 years… The Holy Bridegroom paid our Bride price by becoming Man and loving us so much that He went to the Cross for our redemption (from the household of sin).
When we are baptized and/or confirmed we affirm and acknowledge that betrothal relationship, but the relationship was there before we accepted it. How awesome is that? God acts to bring us into intimate loving relationship and we don’t really have to do anything!

Next time-the betrothal feast.