By Christopher West
As we enter Holy Week, I thought it fitting to reflect anew on the "spousal mystery" of Christ's body "given up for us" on the cross. St. Augustine wrote, "Like a bridegroom Christ went forth from his chamber.... He came to the marriage-bed of the cross, and there in mounting it, he consummated his marriage. And when he perceived the sighs of the creature, he lovingly gave himself up to the torment in place of his bride, and joined himself to [her] forever" (Sermo Suppositus 120). Saint Mechtilde, a German mystic of the 13th century, echoed the same idea when she wrote that Christ's "noble nuptial bed was the very hard wood of the Cross on which he leaped with more joy and ardor then a delighted bridegroom" (cited by Blaise Arminjon in The Cantata of Love).
Those familiar with my lectures know that I first heard this idea of the cross as a "marriage bed" from the late Bishop Fulton Sheen in a recorded talk I listened to some years ago. Sheen's booming voice still echoes in my mind: "Do you know what is happening at the foot of the cross?" he asked. "Nuptials, I tell you! Nuptials!" Like Augustine, he then described the cross as Christ's "marriage bed" which he mounted not in pleasure, but in pain in order to unite himself forever to his Bride.
The good bishop went on to explain that whenever Jesus calls Mary "woman" (such as at the Wedding in Cana and at the cross), he is speaking as the new Adam to the new Eve, the Bridegroom to the Bride. Here, of course, the relationships are outside the realm of blood. The fact that Christ's mother is "the woman" symbolizing his "Bride" needn't trouble us. The marriage of the new Adam and new Eve consummated at the cross is mystical and virginal. The Catechism, itself, refers to this "woman" (Mary) as "the Bride of the Lamb" (CCC 1138).
Contemplating this spousal symbolism opens up treasures for us. Just as the first Adam was put into a deep sleep and Eve came from his side, so the new Adam accepts the slumber of death and the new Eve is born of his side (see CCC 766). This is often portrayed artistically by an image of "the woman" (Mary) holding a chalice - or sometimes a large jug reminiscent of Cana - at the foot of the cross receiving the flow of blood and water from Christ's side. The blood and water, of course, symbolize the "nuptial bath" of Baptism and the "wedding feast" of the Eucharist.
But there's still more to this! The mystical union of the new Adam and the new Eve has already borne supernatural fruit. "'Woman, behold, your son!' Then he said to the disciple, 'Behold, your mother!'" (Jn 19:26-27). One might also render Christ's words as follows, "Woman, behold your giving birth to a new son." Mary's sorrows at the foot of the cross are her labor pains in giving birth to all the children of the Church. Here the beloved disciple (John) represents the offspring "born anew not of perishable seed, but of imperishable" (1 Pt 1:23), "not of blood, ...but of God" (Jn 1:13).
St. Paul wasn't kidding when he described the union of spouses as "a great mystery" that refers to Christ and the Church (see Eph 5:31-32). Jesus, open our hearts ever anew to this "great mystery" revealed through your body given up for us on the "marriage bed" of the cross. Mary, teach us how to receive the gift of the Bridegroom asyou did, with total openness and surrender.Amen.
Christopher West serves as a research fellow and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute. He and his wife, Wendy, live with their five children near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.