The Bride of Christ: a feminist reading

The image of the church, or the soul, as the Bride of Christ is a longstanding one in Christian theology, and can be seen as complementary to the image of the church as the Body of Christ. The traditional reading of this image, grounded as it is in a patriarchal understanding of marriage and an essentialist understanding of women and men, is problematic from the perspective of feminist theology. Some might argue that it should therefore be discarded, but I think that it is of ancient enough tradition and beautiful enough associations to be worth preserving and re-imagining.

In an earlier discussion, Audrey suggested that “the mystical tradition . . . is the only valid lens through which to view this image.” But the primary grounding I have for this image is the liturgical lens: the triple plunging of the pillar Easter candle into the baptismal font, the utero ecclesiae (womb of the church), during Easter Vigil, the “night truly blessed… when heaven is wedded to earth, and we are reconciled with God.”

Audrey continued,

The church- indeed all creation- each of us- must assume a feminine stance in relation to the Holy Mystery- a total and absolute ‘fiat’.

I don’t find this a helpful reading of the symbol, if “feminine stance” is meant to imply receptivity and submission, which is how I usually see it read. (Most notably in von Balthasar’s work, which takes this to such an extreme in his image of Mary — over against the active agency of Peter — that it makes me wonder whether he read the same account of the Annunciation that I did.)

I think the power in this image lies in its signification of the bride’s desire for her spouse and her longing for union: a longing sufficient to cause her to re-order her life towards that union. It also signifies the promise that such a union will occur, will in fact imminently occur. The bride beautifully symbolizes the “already and not yet” time in which we now live.

And it’s interesting; on first reading I assumed the fiat in Audrey’s comment was Mary’s “Let it be done to me according to your will,” a submissive act of will. But Fiat is also the word the LORD spoke, Fiat lux!: a creative act of will.

The metaphor of the church as the Bride of Christ might even be seen as supporting the ordination of women, when it is recognized that the priest stands and prays not only in persona Christi, but also in persona ecclesiae. The text of the eucharistic prayers includes not only the institution narrative, during which the priest re-presents the words and actions of Christ at the Last Supper, but also the petitions and intercessions which the priest offers in the voice of the Church.

The image of the Bride of Christ needn’t be viewed only through the patriarchal perception of woman’s nature as inherently passive, docile, compliant, and receptive. Centering the perspective and agency of the bride transforms her from passive object to active subject: a subject characterized by “fully conscious and active participation,” one might even say, in her wedding and in her marriage. In a feminist reading, the Bride of Christ is seen as an ardent woman who loves, desires, and reaches for her Spouse.

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7 Responses to The Bride of Christ: a feminist reading

  1. Pingback: The Bride of Christ: a feminist reading « BLT

  2. Lovely – and balanced. It is not often I find balance in a post on this subject.

  3. J. K. Gayle says:

    Victoria,
    I left another comment over at BLT where you posted this one.
    Kurk

  4. This is a helpful reflection in the ongoing challenge to bring feminist reflections deep into the way we do theology & spirituality. The idea of everybody taking a “feminine” relationship to God is helpful & important for men (and boys!) who need this balancing perspective, but as has been pointed out long ago, women (and girls) need to claim a sense of agency which the male establishment has tended to suppress. The initiative of Mary in responding to the angel and to God at the Annunciation is essential. I see that you have read Girard and James Alison.

    • Thanks for your comment, Andrew (and apologies for my belated reply). Do you think there’s a concern that the misapplication of this image can contribute to a culture of clericalism, if the (all-male) clergy are identified with the bridegroom and the (receptive, obedient) laity with the bride?

      Yes, I have read Girard, who I admit I find rough going, and Alison, who has been tremendously influential. (Were you at the Theology & Peace conference in Baltimore this past summer. If so, we may have met there.)

      • Hi, My guess is that use of “bridegroom” imagery in Christian writings may have helped shore up a masculine priesthood, but if so, not so much because of the image itself but because most of the writing until recent times was by men & was written from men’s point of view. Which means we have the same problem with all images. Julian of Norwich, for example, seems much more inside the feminine imagery she uses for Christ & God as Mother than, say, the Cistercian writers who used feminine imagery of Christ where it reflects what is meaningful for men.

  5. Pingback: Second Blogiversary! | Gaudete Theology

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