The Church is Bride and Mother
“The Church is the Bride of Christ: he loved her and handed himself over for her. He has purified her by his blood and made her the fruitful mother of all God's children.” (CCC 808)
For many preachers, Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 5:22-33 is a landmine. In fact, some homilists, when this reading comes around on a Sunday, choose to use the edited version. (Don’t worry. It is legitimate to do so if the lectionary permits it.)
We need to read this passage in the broader context. It’s not merely about the duties and the dignity of marriage — as important as it is today to clearly, boldly and unequivocally to state that Christian marriage is no mere civil union. No, the line upon which the Apostle wishes us to focus is the second to last line of this passage from the Epistle: “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church.” The husband/wife imagery is done for the purpose of illustration of Paul’s greater point — namely that Christ is the head of the body, the Church, which Paul tells us in Colossians 1:18.
Christ is distinct from the Church, certainly, but is identified completely with the Church. He is her bridegroom. He is her savior. She is his Bride. And just as in the marital union, husband and wife become one flesh — Christ’s Mystical Body continues on in her. This Bride is the object of Christ’s redemptive love. The great 19th-entury German Catholic theologian J.S. Mohler states that “the whole social structure of the Church is nothing else but the embodied love.”
The visible Body of the Church is this mystery, patterned on Christ as its supreme model (and charged with continuing his work and his way among men until he comes again). The Bridegroom, Christ, gives life and fruitfulness to his Bride, the Church, and thus, in this marriage, the Church become Mother, the one who on this plane of existence is the bearer of salvation. This Bride, Mother Church, in all ways is loving, and, as Mother, gives to us, her children, the saving energies of grace and new life. Therefore, we can say that the Church is an embodied grace, both sacramental and social.
Today, more than ever, our Church can be seen as divided and so flawed. The primary image we need to combat any discouragement that we might face in the world concerning the Church is to see that the Church is our Mother. She gives us life, which is born in her from her Bridegroom, Jesus.
Although clearly distinct, they are no longer two, but one. When one encounters the Bride, one should encounter the Bridegroom. This is true in a sacramental marriage; it is even more so in the union of Christ and his Bride, his Body, the Church. As friends of the Bridegroom, especially those who are priests and future priests, always need to present to the waiting world our friend’s love, his Bride, the Church, in all her beauty, with her best face forward, for she is glorious and awesome, as both militant and triumphant; she is one, holy, catholic and apostolic.