by Father Mike Stubbs
When I meet with engaged couples to prepare them for marriage, I sometimes explain customs and traditions associated with weddings.
We discuss how those customs often reflect a way of life that has long since disappeared. For example, the bride frequently will wear a veil, with a blusher or gossamer veil concealing her face. At the end of the ceremony, the bridegroom will lift the veil and kiss the bride, and the two will leave to live happily ever after.
Centuries ago, when that custom originated, the bridegroom often had never seen the bride before, since their parents had arranged the marriage. When he lifted the veil, it was his very first view of the bride. In other words, our custom preserves the collective memory of arranged marriages, even though our lack of information about the custom’s origin often veils that memory.
Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 22:1-14, tells a parable that involves a wedding feast. In his retelling of the parable, Matthew has transformed it into an allegory, with each element of the story standing for something. We can easily identify the king who gives the wedding feast as God. We can identify the feast itself as heaven. The servants who bring the invitation to the feast are the prophets. The ungrateful guests who reject the invitation are those who reject God’s call.
Their city, destroyed as punishment for the rejection, corresponds to the city of Jerusalem, destroyed in the year 70.
And finally, the bridegroom stands for Jesus Christ, just as he does in other parts of the New Testament.
The various elements of the story fall neatly into place. But what about the bride? You can’t have a wedding without a bride, yet the parable does not mention her at all, much less give any clue to her identity. It is as though she were completely veiled from our sight.
On the other hand, we can guess her identity from similar metaphors in the Old Testament comparing God to a bridegroom: “As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; And as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so shall your God rejoice in you” (Is 62:5). The prophet is addressing the people of Israel. They are God’s bride.
Following a similar pattern, if Jesus Christ is the bridegroom, then the church is his bride. That is the relationship outlined in chapter 5, verse 25, of the Letter to the Ephesians. (It is also poetically described in Rv 21:2 and 19:7.)
The New Testament metaphor where the groom stands for Jesus Christ and the bride stands for the church parallels the Old Testament metaphor where the bridegroom stands for God and the bride for Israel.
And yet, later Jewish tradition provides still another metaphor that can shed light upon our discussion: “When the world was created, the Sabbath said to the Holy One, ‘Ruler of the Universe, every living thing created has its mate, and each day its companion, except me, the seventh day. I am alone.’ God answered, ‘The people of Israel will be your mate.’”
So the Sabbath day was personified, to be Israel’s bride, to be Israel’s companion, to bring Israel joy. Israel and the Sabbath day are closely linked, just as a groom and a bride are wedded together.
That weekly observance enriches Jewish life. Does not something similar happen for the church? Through its weekly celebration of the Sunday Eucharist, it binds itself more closely to its spouse, Jesus Christ.