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I approach these Pages with some “fear and trembling” as well as a measure of excitement and joy. Recently I discovered a book that has had a profound impact on me (even as I can hardly articulate it yet). This–truly reverent–book, “The Sexuality of Jesus in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion” by Leo Steinberg (Pantheon/October Book, NY, 1983), attempts to demonstrate how Jesus’ sexuality was a theme of some of the greatest works of art and of artists. And the link given can let you buy this book now…..DO IT IF YOU CAN! You won’t be sorry!
I also offer these “Bridegroom” pages as a reflection and meditation on these following (important) words of Pope John Paul II in his reflection on the theme of Jesus as Bridegroom (from his encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem). I offer these pages, too, as a possible “input” for the discussion on the question of the ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood of the Catholic Church….sensing that artists have said it better than theologians perhaps:
Reflections of Pope John Paul II on the Nuptial Mystery of Christ-Church-Eucharist
The Symbolic Dimension of the “Great Mystery”
- In the Letter to the Ephesians we encounter a second dimension of the analogy which, taken as a whole, serves to reveal the “great mystery.” This is a symbolic dimension. If God’s love for the human person, for the chosen people of Israel, is presented by the prophets as the love of the bridegroom for the bride, such an analogy expresses the “spousal” quality and the divine and non-human character of God’s love: “For your Maker is your husband … the God of the whole earth he is called” (Is. 54:5).
The same can also be said of the spousal love of Christ, the Redeemer: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn. 3:16). It is a matter, therefore, of God’s love expressed by means of the redemption accomplished by Christ. According to St. Paul’s letter, this love is “like” the spousal love of human spouses, but naturally it is not “the same.” For the analogy implies a likeness, while at the same time leaving ample room for non-likeness.
This is easily seen in regard to the person of the “bride.” According to the Letter to the Ephesians, the bride is the church, just as for the prophets the bride was Israel. She is therefore a collective subject and not an individual person. This collective subject is the people of God, a community made up of many persons, both women and men. “Christ has loved the church” precisely as a community, as the people of God. At the same time, in this church, which in the same passage is also called his “body” (cf. Eph. 5:23), he has loved every individual person. For Christ has redeemed all without exception, every man and woman. It is precisely this love of God which is expressed in the redemption; the spousal character of this love reaches completion in the history of humanity and of the world.
Christ has entered this history and remains in it as the bridegroom who “has given himself.” To give means “to become a sincere gift” in the most complete and radical way: “Greater love has no man than this” (Jn. 15:13). According to this conception, all human beings–both women and men–are called through the church to be the “bride” of Christ, the redeemer of the world. In this way “being the bride,” and thus the “feminine” element, becomes a symbol of all that is “human,” according to the words of Paul: “There is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3: 28).
From a linguistic viewpoint we can say that the analogy of spousal love found in the Letter to the Ephesians links what is “masculine” to what is “feminine,” since as members of the church men too are included in the concept of “bride.” This should not suprise us, for St. Paul, in order to express his mission in Christ and in the church, speaks of the “little children with whom he is again in travail” (cf. Gal. 4: 19). In the sphere of what is “human” –of what is humanly personal “masculinity” and “femininity” are distinct, yet at the same time they complete and explain each other. This is also present in the great analogy of the “bride” in the Letter to the Ephesians. In the church every human being male and female–is the “bride,” in that he or she accepts the gift of the love of Christ, the Redeemer, and seeks to respond to it with the gift of his or her own person.
Christ is the bridegroom. This expresses the truth about the love of God, who “first loved us” (cf. I Jn. 4: 19) and who, with the gift generated by this spousal love for man, has exceeded all human expectations: “He loved them to the end” (Jn.13: 1). The bridegroom–the Son consubstantial with the Father as God–became the son of Mary; he became the “son of man,” true man, a male.
The symbol of the bridegroom is masculine. This masculine symbol represents the human aspect of the divine love which God has for Israel, for the church and for all people. Meditating on what the Gospels say about Christ’s attitude toward women, we can conclude that as a man, a son of Israel, he revealed the dignity of the “daughters of Abraham” (cf. Lk. 13:16), the dignity belonging to women from the very “beginning” on an equal footing with men.
At the same time Christ emphasized the originality which distinguishes women from men, all the richness lavished upon women in the mystery of creation. Christ’s attitude toward women serves as a model of what the Letter to the Ephesians expresses with the concept of “bridegroom.” Precisely because Christ’s divine love is the love of a bridegroom, it is the model and pattern of all human love, men’s love in particular.
- Against the broad background of the “great mystery” expressed in thespousalrelationship between Christ and the church, it is possible to understand adequately the calling of the “Twelve.” In calling only men as his apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner. In doing so, he exercised the same freedom with which, in all his behavior, he emphasized the dignity and the vocation of women without conforming to the prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time.
Consequently, the assumption that he called men to be apostles in order to conform with the widespread mentality of his times does not at all correspond to Christ’s way of acting. “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men” (Mt. 22: 16). These words fully characterize Jesus of Nazareth’s behavior. Here one also finds an explanation for the calling of the “Twelve.” They are with Christ at the Last Supper. They alone receive the sacramental charge, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk. 22: 19; 1 Cor. 11: 24), which is joined to the institution of the eucharist. On Easter Sunday night they receive the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you.retain are retained” (Jn. 20:23).
We find ourselves at the very heart of the paschal mystery, which completely reveals the spousal love of God. Christ is the bridegroom because “he has given himself”: His body has been “given,” his blood has been “poured out” (cf. Lk. 22:19-20). In this way “he loved them to the end” (Jn. 13:1). The “sincere gift” contained in the sacrifice of the cross gives definitive prominence to the spousal meaning of God’s love.
As the redeemer of the world, Christ is the bridegroom of the church. The eucharist is the sacrament of our redemption. it is the sacrament of the bridegroom and of the bride. The eucharist makes present and realizes anew in a sacramental manner the redemptive act of Christ, who “creates” the church, his body. Christ is united with this “body” as the bridegroom with the bride. All this is contained in the Letter to the Ephesians. The perennial “unity of the two” that exists between man and woman from the very “beginning” is introduced into this great mystery” of Christ and of the church.
Since Christ in instituting the eucharist linked it in such an explicit way to the priestly service of the apostles, it is legitimate to conclude that he thereby wished to express the relationship between man and woman, between what is “feminine” and what is “masculine.” It is a relationship willed by God both in the mystery of creation and in the mystery of redemption.
It is the eucharist above all that expresses the redemptive act of Christ, the bridegroom, toward the church, the bride. This is clear and unambiguous when the sacramental ministry of the eucharist, in which the priest acts in persona Christi, is performed by a man. This explanation confirms the teaching of the declaration Inter Insigniores, published at the behest of Paul VI in response to the question concerning the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood.”
(Pope John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem)
Here are some supportive words for the Pope’s thesis, from the greatest theologian of our own times, Hans Urs von Balthasar…..and here is a piece by another great Christian witness of our times, C.S.Lewis that addresses some of these profound issues as well. The Oriental and Orthodox Churches affirm, too, the priestly ministry as rooted in the Nuptial Mystery of Christ and His Church, as expressed by theologian-priest, Fr Alexander Schmemann.
There is no way, of course, I can adequately summarize Steinberg’s book with its many pictures and reflections, and quotes from theological sources and even saints (I recommend purchasing it as a friend just did). But I will try to give a “feel” for it with some images from these artists (only black and white, unfortunately) as well as giving some of Steinberg’s comments. And, of course, the whole theme of the “Nuptial Meaning of Creation” is larger and vaster yet! But this little sampling is offered as a small beginning….
Steinberg’s theory is that it was in the Renaissance period that the Christian faith found one of its most “orthodox” expressions: manifesting the full humanity of Jesus Christ, with a deep grasp of the Divinity of Jesus Christ. In earlier periods, usually only the upper body of Christ is shown (consider most icons): emphasizing the divinity. Only in this period was the upper and lower body shown: and shown “complete in all parts of a man.”
He groups the images around various themes relating to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Perhaps Steinberg is right and these artists gave expression, beautifully and reverently, to great themes that have a bearing on our own lives and issues (and maybe even the current controversy on ordination of males only to the priesthood?).
As he says: “The first necessity is to admit to a long-suppressed matter of fact: that Renaissance art, both north and south, produced a large body of devotional imagery in which the genitalia of the Christ Child, or of the dead Christ, receive such demonstrative emphasis that one must recognize an ostentatio genitaliumcomparable to the canonic ostentatio vulnerum, the showing forth of the wounds…”