One of the most pervasive images of salvation in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament is that of a marriage, with God as a bridegroom making the faithful his bride.
Marriage, of course, means something quite different in our context than it did in the Ancient Near East or classical Mediterranean world. In order to fully grasp the extent of the metaphor and what it would have meant to our original audiences, we need to add to our images of love, fidelity, and family- and home-making, images of protection, alliance-brokering, provision, and removal of shame. It was, and remains, a very full image, and one very appropriate to the relationship between a faithful God and a faithful people.
In the Hebrew Bible, this was imagined as a marriage between YHWH and Israel. The New Testament reworked the image to be about Jesus and the Church. Two such examples from Jesus’ own teaching are the parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22) and the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25). The motif returns in one of the readings from Morning Prayer this morning, the famed Wedding Feast of the Lamb from Revelation 19:
“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;
to her it has been granted to be clothed
with fine linen, bright and pure”—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19.6-9).
They say that everybody loves a wedding, and it’s probably true — at least to the extent that weddings are powerful symbols of connection, commitment, romance, and possibility. It’s no wonder then that Christians have found themselves drawn to this metaphor, and that it’s been even more pervasive in our hymnody, poetry, and theological reflection than in our Scriptures. My favorite ancient hymn riffs off of all three of the readings I’ve cited here:
Thy bridal chamber I see adorned, O my Saviour
But I have no wedding garment that I may enter.
O Giver of Light enlighten the vesture of my soul and save me.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
This hymn picks up on the wedding garment mentioned in both the Apocalypse and the parable of the Wedding Banquet. The bride, whether conceived of as the Church as in our text or individually as in the hymn, requires an “enlightened,” that is bright and shining and full of light, wedding garment; she must “be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure.” In case we didn’t catch the meaning of the metaphor, the biblical text clarifies that the bright linen is a metaphor for “the righteous deeds of the saints.”
This is another way of talking about the good fruit metaphor that drives so much of my thought here on this blog. Part of what makes different metaphors for the same idea interesting is how each of them contributes something, shines a spotlight on one particular aspect of what’s being talked about. What the wedding dress metaphor contributes for me is a sense of grace and gift. The bridegroom chose the bride without reference to her clothing; the relationship itself is grace. She adorns herself with shining linen because that is what is right and appropriate for her to wear for the bridegroom; it too then is a kind of gift, an offering of her actions and life to the bridegroom. And yet, it was customary in the Ancient Near East for the family of the bridegroom to provide the wedding garments for the bride and guests, and so the metaphor also suggests that this offering is only possible because of the bridegroom’s generosity. To put this in more contemporary (if still heavily gendered) terms, we might say that the bridegroom’s love for his bride allows her to love him more fully, and frees her to be all that she can be.
Another thing to note is that, while the image here in Revelation 19 lines up beautifully with our cultural tradition of the white wedding dress (a tradition that dates only to the Victorian era), for hundreds of years, the white garment would have been more strongly associated with baptism, in which the newly baptized were dressed in white robes, as the faithful sang: “All those who have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. Alleluia!” (Galatians 3:27). And so the image is of the union of Jesus with the baptized.
What this means, continuing the line of thought of the metaphor, is that baptism — through which one symbolically dies to self and is reborn in Christ — is, for the bride, the consummation of her marriage to Christ. For the bridegroom, the marriage is similarly consummated in death: his death on the cross. These moments of death being transfigured into new life are the moments when the life of the Christian and the life of the Christ are made one.
We have a wide scope of images and metaphors at play here, including marriage, baptism, death, and sex. The point where they all come together is that they all convey a sense of apocalyptic expectation: they are all transformations, in which — at least in the biblical understanding of them— there is an irreversible change. One goes into a wedding single and leaves a couple; goes into baptism the old self and emerges from the water a new self; dies to self to discover new life; and enters sex as two people and leaves it as one.
And so it really is a beautiful and fitting image for the life of faith.
Of course we know that a wedding does not a marriage make. As much as these transformational acts are endings they are also beginnings. Life needs to be lived every day. And so we ask for our daily bread, take up our crosses daily, and live each day as a witness to God’s self-sacrificial love, remembering always that we are one with our maker, our lover, our bridegroom.