Saturday, October 15, 2011

Christ, the bridegroom (why a priest must be male)

In an era where there remains confusion or ignorance on why the Catholic Church only ordains men to the office of the priesthood, I thought it helpful to delve a little into a dimension of the theology of why this must be so.

In Church theology:
[T]he bishop or the priest, in the exercise of his ministry, does not act in his own name, "in persona propria:" he represents Christ, who acts through him: "the priest truly acts in the place of Christ", as Saint Cyprian already wrote in the third century.[15] It is this ability to represent Christ that Saint Paul considered as characteristic of his apostolic function (cf. 2 Cor 5:20; Gal 4:14). The supreme expression of this representation is found in the altogether special form it assumes in the celebration of the Eucharist, which is the source and centre of the Church's unity, the sacrificial meal in which the People of God are associated in the sacrifice of Christ: the priest...then acts..."in persona Christi,"[16] taking the role of Christ, to the point of being his very image, when he pronounces the words of consecration.[17] (Inter Insigniores, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 5b, 1976)
I'd like to further examine the notion that Christ acts through the priest supremely through the celebration of the Eucharist. Without getting into a long apologetic, Catholic theology teaches that the Eucharist is the sacrifice of Christ that transpired on Calvary, extended through time.

CCC#1367 The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: "The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different."
One can find many apologetic treatments on why the Church teaches this is so. A couple Scriptural examples include Christ at the Last Supper holding up the bread and saying "This is my body which is given for you" (Lk. 22:19). In the verse, the Greek verb "is" in both instances is in the present tense. The sacrifice of Calvary was thus already extended through time at the Last Supper. Many translations, such as the literal King James, have the words: "lamb slain before the foundation of the world" (Rev. 13:8). This also speaks to the timelessness of the sacrifice of Christ the Lamb (cf. John 1:29). Other examples include the discourse of John 6, in which Jesus repeats phrases like: "I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh" (John 6:51). Paul echoes the same sentiment when he writes: "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?" (1 Cor. 10:16); and immediately after describing the Last Supper: "Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. ... For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself" (1 Cor. 11:27,29). Catholics also call the blessing the "consecration," echoing Christ's Last Supper words when he held up the bread, spoke the words, and told the Apostles to "do this" in his memory.

Going forward with the theology that the Eucharist is truly the single sacrifice of Calvary offered in "an unbloody manner" (cf. CCC#1367), it is vital to understand the teaching of a male-only priesthood with the idea that Christ's sacrifice was a "nuptial" event. Christ's wedding was on the Cross. He was the bridegroom wedded to the Church, his bride.

Even from the most ancient days, God's covenant with his people has been revealed with nuptial imagery. For example, God in reconciling the Israelites' loyalty to the false god Ba'al describes His union with the people of God in nuptial terms:
And there I will give her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. "And in that day, says the LORD, you will call me, 'My husband,' and no longer will you call me, 'My Ba'al.' For I will remove the names of the Ba'als from her mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more. And I will make for you a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD. (Hosea 2:15-20)
It is no accident that God intermingles his betrothal to Israel as making a "covenant" with them. God makes a "covenant" with Abraham, promising him many descendants (Gen. 17:6-9). This covenant is completed when Abraham demonstrates his faith in God by preparing to sacrifice his son at God's prompt (Gen 22:16-17). Abraham is allowed to sacrifice a "ram" instead (v. 13).

As the late, great Bishop Fulton Sheen said:
Throughout the Old Testament, the union of God and Israel is described as Nuptials. God is pictured as the Husband; Israel as the Bride; and their union is consummated in sacrifice. (Bishop Fulton Sheen, Three to Get Married, chapter 11)
The event of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son is a strong foreshadowing of God sending His Son as a sacrifice, with the blood of "a new covenant" (e.g. Lk. 22:20). Reading texts like Hosea in light of covenant and sacrifice, we can begin to see how Christ's sacrifice on the Cross was a nuptial event.

Consider the nuptial imagery in Christ's life leading up to his sacrifice.

He performs his first public miracle at the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11). Notice the inclusion of "wine" in the episode. In addition to holding up wine at the Last Supper and equating it with his blood, wine is a consistent theme in nuptial episodes in Scripture. The Song of Songs, a tale about a bride-to-be longing for her bridegroom, is fraught with references to wine or vineyards (e.g. Sg. 1:2,6,14; 2:13,15; 4:10; 5:1; 6:11; 7:2,8-9,12; 8:2,11,12). Remember the Hosea passage we referenced earlier when God promises a "vineyard" to his betrothed Israel. From such passages, we can view and understand the Eucharist in a new light, and how the people of God are wedded, so to speak, to Christ through the sacrifice.

Christ's Parable of the Ten Virgins describes the Church seeking to enter the kingdom as the bride uniting with the bridegroom: "Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom" (Mat. 25:1). Christ even compared himself to a "bridegroom" when speaking to John the Baptist's disciples (Mat. 9:14-15).

John makes reference to rejoicing "at the bridegroom's voice" (John 3:29) which is a strong echo of the excited bride-to-be: "The voice of my beloved!" again from the nuptial Song of Songs (2:8).

Shortly before Christ is crucified, nuptial imagery lines the Biblical text. In Song of Songs, the bride marvels at the fragrant "anointing oils" (Sg. 1:3) of the bridegroom, and the fragrance of his "cheeks" and lips compared to "myrrh" (Sg. 5:13). It was customary in Jewish antiquity for both nuptial parties to be heavily perfumed:
Garments were perfumed to such an extent that an old marriage song (Ps. xlv. 9 [A. V. 8]) could say of the royal bridegroom, "All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia." Beds were perfumed with "myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon" (Prov. vii. 17). The bride in Cant. iii. 6 was perfumed with all sorts of incense; and noble guests were honored by being sprinkled with perfume or incense (Luke vii. 46; comp. Lane, "Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians," iii. 8). It was customary among noble Jews to pass incense ("mugmar") around on a brazier after meals (comp. Ber. vi. 6). (Jewish Encyclopedia entry on Incense)
Myrrh of course is one of the fragrant gifts brought by the wise men to the newborn Jesus (e.g.Mat. 2:11). The bride-to-be in Song of Songs is adorned with the perfume "nard" (1:12), which is the same perfume with which Mary of Bethany anointed Christ's feet (Mk. 14:3; John 12:3) shortly before his Passion.

Even closer to the final Crucifixion, Christ is stripped of his garments (e.g. Mat. 27:31-35), which of course is an action the marital couple does prior to consummation.

Finally, Christ is preparing to breath his last breath on the Cross, and what does he say but: "It is finished," (John 19:30) which can also be translated "It is consummated." The full verse reads: "When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, 'It is finished'; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit." The beverage was vinegar or sour "wine" (e.g. ESV, NASB, NJB), the beverage of a wedding ceremony. The marriage of the bridegroom with his bride the Church was consummated.

That understanding does not replace other interpretations of "it is finished," but rather works in concert with them to showcase the richness and depth of holy Scripture. For instance, Dr. Scott Hahn's treatment The Hunt for the Fourth Cup shows how "it is finished" also refers to the completion of the Passover sacrifice meal begun in the upper room.

And so we come full-circle. The priest, when confecting the Eucharist, which is the same sacrifice of Calvary, is the instrument of Christ himself who performs the sacrifice.

When we grasp this reality, we can better understand why in order for the sacrament to be an effective "sign," the priest must be male. Christ's very incarnation as a man accomplishes the masculine function of the bridegroom. It would be an ontological impossibility for this to be performed by a bride. It is Christ who "gives" to the bride on the Cross, begetting spiritual life. A good study of Scripture recognizes the theophanies in life and how they reflect unseen realities. In the role of a man as the giver during intercourse, we can understand how it is an outward sign of Christ the bridegroom who is the "giver" of himself at his nuptial event on the Cross. The outward masculinity points to the ontological reality of a man giving himself mystically for his bride.

Christ, when healing the paralytic lowered through the ceiling (e.g. Mark 2:1-12) relates the outward sign with the inward reality. The crowd doubts that Jesus forgave the man's sins when he said, "Yours sins are forgiven." To show the crowd that the man was truly spiritually "healed" he commanded the man to rise and walk. When the man stood, he showed outwardly the healing that had occurred inwardly.

The sacraments instituted by Christ utilize outward instruments that show us what occurs inwardly. For example, Baptism requires water (cf. Acts 8:36). Water is used to wash. As Peter teaches us, this water is not just for removing dirt, but for clearing the conscience by removing the stains of sin (1 Pet. 3:20-21). The outward sign effects the inward reality.

And so we see how the outward sign of a man brings about the inward reality of the true bridegroom, consummated to his bride on the Cross.1 It would be ontologically impossible for a woman to sacramentally and truly act in persona Christi, the bridegroom.

Here is more from Inter Insigniores:
The Christian priesthood is therefore of a sacramental nature: the priest is a sign, the supernatural effectiveness of which comes from the ordination received, but a sign that must be perceptible[18] and which the faithful must be able to recognize with ease. The whole sacramental economy is in fact based upon natural signs, on symbols imprinted upon the human psychology: "Sacramental signs", says Saint Thomas, "represent what they signify by natural resemblance".[19] The same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things: when Christ's role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally, there would not be this "natural resemblance" which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man: in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man. (Inter Insigniores, 5c)
This, of course, makes a woman no less human or competent than a man just because she cannot by her nature act in the person of the bridegroom. By the same token, a man is not inferior or less-than-human because he by his very nature cannot gestate human life within himself and give birth. "Male and female He created them," (Gen. 5:2) Scripture says. Paul does not tell us that differences in spiritual gifts are a matter of inequality but rather complementarity within the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27-30). Women and men participate in the "royal priesthood" (e.g. CCC#1268) of Christ, just as men participate as members of the "bride" the Church. Yet these are not sacramental realities as are the priest or the Eucharist which demand the natural outward sign. When we offer sacrifices in our lives, we do not truly and sacramentally make present the one sacrifice of Calvary in the way the Eucharist does.

Inter Insigniores expounds further:
Christ is the Bridegroom; the Church is his bride, whom he loves because he has gained her by his blood and made her glorious, holy and without blemish, and henceforth he is inseparable from her. This nuptial theme which is developed from the Letters of Saint Paul onwards (cf. 2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:22- 23) to the writings of Saint John (cf. especially Jn 3:29; Rev 19:7,9), is present also in the Synoptic Gospels: the Bridegroom's friends must not fast as long as he is with them (cf. Mk 2:19); the Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who gave a feast for his son's wedding (cf. Mt 22:1-14). It is through this Scriptural language, all interwoven with symbols, and which expresses and affects man and woman in their profound identity, that there is revealed to us the mystery of God and Christ, a mystery which of itself is unfathomable.

That is why we can never ignore the fact that Christ is a man. And therefore, unless one is to disregard the importance of this symbolism for the economy of Revelation, it must be admitted that, in actions which demand the character of ordination and in which Christ himself, the author of the Covenant, the Bridegroom and Head of the Church, is represented, exercising his ministry of salvation which is in the highest degree the case of the Eucharist—his role (this is the original sense of the word "persona") must be taken by a man. This does not stem from any personal superiority of the latter in the order of values, but only from a difference of fact on the level of functions and service. (Inter Insigniores, 5e-f)
If one meditates on the divine mystery of Christ as the bridegroom, it is easier to understand why Christ freely chose only men to serve in the office of Apostle. The same can be said of the Apostles who subsequently only appointed men to ministerial offices.

The one sacrifice of Christ on Calvary is the same sacrifice as that offered in the Eucharist during the Divine Liturgy. In that sacrifice, Christ is the bridegroom, consummating his marriage to his bride, the Church. This marriage is a new covenant. The priest acts in persona Christi when confecting the Eucharist. Since a sacrament demands the natural sign to truly bring about the reality at hand, any priest participating in the one priesthood of Christ must be a man.

Additional works of interest:
Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II
Some Scriptural Arguments For The All-Male Priesthood by David P. Lang, Catholic Culture

1I would be remiss if I did not also point out that Christ as bridegroom is not the only reason why the priesthood can only be fulfilled by a man. Scripture, for instance, also teaches of the headship of a man befitting the role of a pastor and shepherd. The sacrificial Lamb foreshadowing Christ in the Old Testament had to be a male, (cf. Ex. 12:5). Etc... This article is intended to examine the richness of the nuptial nature of Christ and his sacrifice.


  1. This part of the scripture fits your article well:
    "and I will make you lie down in safety"

    I enjoyed reading it.