Jesus Christ is the Bridegroom foretold by the prophets and we are all invited to share in his wedding feast, if we have our ‘wedding garment’
At the General Audience of Wednesday, 11 December, the Holy Father continued his catechesis on the mystery of the Church. In the 18th talk of the series he explains how the Church is described in the New Testament as the bride of Christ. Here is the Holy Father's address, which he gave in Italian.
1. "For he who has become your husband is your Maker; his name is the Lord of hosts; your redeemer is the Holy One of Israel" (Is 54:5). Once again we quote these words of Isaiah to recall that the prophets of the Old Testament saw God as the Spouse of the chosen people. Israel was depicted as a bride, often an unfaithful one due to her sins, especially her falling into idolatry. The Lord of hosts, however, remained faithful to his chosen people. He continued to be their "redeemer, the Holy One of Israel".
On the groundwork laid by the prophets, the New Testament presents Jesus Christ as the Spouse of the new People of God: he is that "redeemer, the Holy One of Israel" who was foretold and announced from afar; in him the prophecies were fulfilled: Christ, the Bridegroom.
2. The first one to present Jesus in this light was John the Baptist in his preaching on the banks of the Jordan: "I am not the Messiah", he told his listeners, "but I was sent before him. The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice" (Jn 3:28-29). As is apparent, the spousal tradition of the Old Testament is reflected in the awareness that this austere messenger of the Lord has of his mission in relationship to Christ's identity. He knows who he is and "what has been given him from heaven". His entire service among the people is directed to the Bridegroom who is to come. John presents himself as "the best man", and confesses that his greatest joy is to have been allowed to hear his voice. Because of this joy he is ready to accept his own "decrease", i.e., to make room for him who is to be revealed, who is greater than he, and for whom he is ready to give his life, because he knows that according to the divine plan of salvation the Bridegroom, the Holy One of Israel, must now "increase": "He must increase; I must decrease" (Jn 3:30).
3. Jesus of Nazareth, therefore, is brought into the midst of his people as the Bridegroom who had been announced by the prophets. He himself confirms this when, in answer to the question raised by John's disciples, "Why do ... your disciples not fast?" (Mk 2:18), he said: "Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast" (Mk 2:19-20). With this answer Jesus makes it clear that the prophetic message about God the Spouse, about the "redeemer, the Holy One of Israel", is fulfilled in himself. He reveals his awareness of being the Bridegroom among his disciples, from whom at the end, however, "the bridegroom will be taken away". He is aware of both his messiahship and the cross on which he will accomplish his sacrifice in obedience to the Father, as foretold by the prophets (cf. Is 42:1-9; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; 52:13-53, 12).
4. What appears from John's declaration on the banks of the Jordan and from Jesus' answer to the question raised by the Baptist's disciples, i.e., that the Bridegroom announced by the prophets has already come, is also confirmed by the parables. In them the spousal motif is indirect, but obvious enough. Jesus says,
"The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son" (Mt 22:2). Everything in the parable makes it clear that Jesus is speaking of himself, but he does so in the third person, which is a feature of his discourse in the parables. In the context of the parable about the king who invites guests to his son's wedding feast, Jesus uses the analogy of a wedding banquet to highlight the truth about the kingdom of God, which he himself brings to the world, and God's invitation to the Bridegroom's feast, i.e., the acceptance of Christ's message in communion with the new people whom the parable presents as being called to a wedding. But he also adds a reference to the refusals made to the invitation, which Jesus observes in the situation of many of his listeners. He also adds that all those invited in his time and at all times must have an attitude worthy of the calling received, symbolized by the "wedding garment" which is to be worn by those who intend to participate in the banquet, so much so that whoever does not wear it is sent away by the king, i.e., by God the Father who invites us to his Son's feast in the Church.
5. It seems that in Israel's world on the occasion of great banquets the clothes to be worn were made available to the guests in the banquet hall. This fact makes the meaning of that detail in Jesus' parable even clearer: the responsibility not only of the person who rejects the invitation, but also of those who claim to attend without fulfilling the requisite conditions for being worthy of the banquet. This is the case of those who maintain and profess that they are followers of Christ and members of the Church, without obtaining the "wedding garment" of grace, which engenders a living faith, hope and love. It is true that this "garment"—more internal than external—is given by God himself, the author of grace and of every good which the soul possesses. But the parable emphasizes the responsibility that every guest has, whatever his or her origin, regarding the yes which must be given to the Lord who calls and regarding the acceptance of his law, the total response to the demands of the Christian vocation and an ever greater participation in the life of the Church.
6. In the parable of the 10 virgins "who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom" (Mt 25:1), Jesus also uses the wedding analogy to explain his idea of the kingdom of God and the Church in which this kingdom is made concrete. Here we also find his insistence on the need for that interior disposition without which one cannot attend the wedding banquet. In this parable Jesus calls us to be ready, vigilant and fervently committed in waiting for the Bridegroom. Only five of the 10 virgins made the effort so that their lamps would be burning when the Bridegroom arrived. The other careless ones were lacking oil. "The bridegroom came and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. Then the door was locked" (Mt 25:10). It is a discreet but unmistakable reference to the lot of those who lack the interior disposition needed for meeting God, and thus lack fervour and perseverance in waiting; a reference, therefore, to the threat of seeing the door closed in one's face. Once again we find an appeal being made to one's sense of responsibility concerning the Christian vocation.
7. Turning now from the parable to the Gospel account of the facts, we should recall the wedding feast in Cana in Galilee, where Jesus was invited with the disciples (cf. Jn 2:1-11). According to John the evangelist, it was there that he performed his first miracle, i.e., the first sign proving his messianic mission. One may interpret his action as an indirect way of making it understood that the Bridegroom announced by the prophets was present among his people, Israel. The entire setting of the wedding ceremony takes on special meaning in this case. In particular, we note that Jesus works his first "sign" at his Mother's request. It is pleasant here to recall what we said in the preceding catechesis: Mary is the beginning and the image of the Church as bride of the new covenant.
We will conclude by rereading those final words of John's text: "Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him" (Jn 2:11). The words did this state that the Bridegroom is already at work. And at his side the figure of the Bride of the new covenant is already beginning to take shape: the Church, present in Mary and those disciples at the wedding feast.
L'Osservatore Romano December 16, 1991