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.”
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.