According to St Paul, this Scriptural image tells us a lot about the relationship between Christ and his Church. In Ephesians 5:21-33, the apostle begins with a teaching about a loving order within a Christian household, but in the end, has woven an understanding of the relationship of Christ and th echurch into his thought. It’s a valuable image, this Bride/Church and Groom/Christ. Jesus himself used the image of the bridegroom a few times (cf. Matt 9:15, Matt 25:1ff.). We also find it in the concluding chapters of Revelation.
My issue is that this image is too often used as a club to insist on a pattern of Church involvement. As a metaphor, it tells us something of both marriage and our relationship to Christ that words alone might not capture–or capture succinctly. I have to raise an objection when David, at his thoughtful blog, suggests that female Eucharistic Ministers are somehow a contradiction to God’s intended expression of bride and groom:
” … it seems to me that this clash of symbols further attenuates our already dilute understanding of what is happening at Mass. This same logic applies to those assisting at the altar and mediating God’s Word during the Liturgy of the Word. While I admit this to be a very controversial and easily misunderstood suggestion, it seems to me that extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, lectors and altar servers ought be a male, preferably those contemplating a vocation as a priest or deacon.”
If that were true, women in agriculture or ranching would have no consonant place in the Christian world, as Jesus also tells us that he and his Church are also very like sower and seed, shepherd and flock.
Saint Paul himself doesn’t keep a strict adherence to the metaphor, as we see in his Corinthian (1 Cor 11:3) hierarchy of God, then Christ, then husband, then wife.
As a musician, I have a deep respect for the use of metaphor. Often, rather than wave our arms in the air trying to catch that word, or bludgeon someone with thousands of words, a single image is enough to capture much more of the reality of something we cannot fully comprehend. Jesus as lamb, lion, hen, or pelican makes sense. But outside of the liturgical setting, most of us are free to eat lamb and chicken, and to watch and laugh at the antics of lions and pelicans at the zoo. Does that mean we’ve rejected the relationship with Christ and ourselves? Hardly.
At liturgy, women take the roles of lector or Eucharistic minister not as a feminist usurpation of the role of men or the priest, but because they are skilled for it, and they have been called. The Church gathered for liturgy is more than a bride. It is a field of growing plants: mustard tree, wheat & weeds, or whatever–take your pick. A person blossoming in service in the name of God is not rejected for being an uppity and early plant. Saint Paul also tells us that such growth is an occasion for honor and joy (cf 1Cor 12:26b). It strikes me as unseemly that a metaphor should dictate liturgical practice.
That said, I realize that some aspects of the Church are unseemly to many of us. We have strong feelings about women in the sanctuary, bishops living in mansions, priests misbehaving, and a lack of prayerfulness in churches. In some cases, we will have to discern these as personal issues, not theological ones. Maybe we need to reread some of the Scriptures and uncover new images that tell us of God and ourselves.
The pelican is not strictly biblical, but is soundly traditional as a one-time innovation that Christians latched onto as explanatory of Christ’s sacrifice. Maybe it’s time for some new metaphors that can steer us to more of a regard for what our sisters and brothers do in service in the name of Christ.
That space picture? The Pelican Nebula.