The Bible places in close parallel the relationships between God and humankind and between man and wife. This is in particular the force behind that great love-song the Song of Songs, and it occupies an honourable place in the Bible. On the other hand, the idolater, that is to say for us today the one who sets God aside, who occupies himself with things other than the essential, is presented in the Bible as an adulterer or prostitute. There we have the subject matter of Hosea. In the New Testament, the beloved is Christ, and the promised – the “virgins” – are us believers. That is how the parable of the wise and foolish virgins reads, along with all the other passages which speak of Christ as the “bridegroom”. Along the same lines, Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 11.2, “I have promised you to a single husband, in order to present you to Christ as a pure virgin.”
What does this analogy teach us about our relationship with God?
First that the relation between God and humanity is and must above all be a relation of love, in the image of an ideal couple: with tenderness, attention and loyalty. This relationship must be balanced, such that neither party seeks to dominate the other, nor order them about, nor enslave them. To operate well, a couple must be an alliance and not a relation where one must be nothing to allow the other to be everything.
On reflection, conceiving of the relations between God and humanity like a couple’s relationship is an astonishing theological statement, one which goes against what we have all too often taught in our parishes: an omnipotent God who blames mankind, ordering us to abase ourselves as low as possible to leave all magnificence and sovereignty to him.
But a couple cannot be like that. A couple is the union of two persons of equal dignity, of equal status, where each respects the other; a relationship where neither of the two parties should denigrate or crush the other; a relation of union which honours the difference of the two parties in faithfulness but without fusion or confusion. Without this, a couple cannot work properly, nor lead to the flourishing of both its parties.
For a couple to work, there must also be the acknowledgement of otherness: the quest for sameness is doomed to failure. So it is in theology: the Bible gives humankind an extraordinary dignity in allowing him to be God’s partner, and even his equal in certain respects. However, man is not God and must not take himself to be God; and God is not man – each needs to guard his own specificity and dignity. It is a union of partnership, of mutual respect, of collaboration, of the welcome of the other, with the aim of becoming “no longer two but one”. And yet, neither side should lose himself in the other nor become the same as the other.
What flows in an ideal couple is an attitude of welcome, respect, consideration, availability, understanding and forgiveness of self and of the other. It is a relation which accepts that the other is not completely as we would like. This point is true for God in relation to us – we often preach that God forgives us and accepts us in understanding our nature – but also true for us in relation to God – we would like God to be stronger, to perform miracles, to be almighty and extinguish evil… but an adult faith can love God with all its heart, even if he does not altogether fulfil our childish fantasies.
In love as in faith, there are emotional and rational dimensions. Certainly it is fine to love God with all our hearts, but we cannot build Christian life solely on feelings. Feelings evolve and give life to Christian commitment, as passionate love gives flesh to a relationship; but we cannot ask ourselves every single morning if we still love our wives or husbands just to discover if we will stay with them for another day longer. At a certain point, something of the order of a decision, a choice, must be blended in. We need to rationalise, we need a certain objectivity, to be able to say with Paul, not “I sense that I believe”, but “I know in whom I trust.” (2 Timothy 1.12)
How far can we press this image? Very far, I believe. It is true that marital love is not just a feeling, nor an institution, nor a contract of trust and cohabitation, nor even a rational and balanced relationship; it is more than that.
First, marital love presupposes the sharing of intimacy, “living under the same roof”, as French law demands. And that is also among the ideals of faith. The Psalmist says, “There is one thing that I desire, the only thing for which I search: to live in the house of the Lord” (Psalm 27), and it is true that we see here a picture of the intimacy which we can desire to live with God, to live in the presence of the Other for all time. This is far from obvious for everyone; getting there demands a great labour of getting to know and of accustoming oneself to that Other. We must “court” God, try to approach him, to be in his presence assiduously; and even if at the start this seems rather inauthentic, it can progressively come to fruition in a real intimacy.
Next, a couple exists to be productive. With God, there is no question of producing children in the flesh, but our lives, made fecund by God, may be rich and give birth to realities which go beyond ourselves, which give fruit and which transmit truth.
To achieve this, we must in a certain way “know” God, which we understand in intellectual and biblical ways – where it is written, “Adam knew Eve his wife and had a son” – and so, yes, “make love” with God. This image might seem too daring. But if we are determined not to take offence at it, it can be a rich and beautiful image. We need to unite ourselves with God, body and soul; we need to live entwined with God, to kiss God on the mouth – the mouth which gives his Word; we need to make ourselves one with him in total abandon, with a liberated pleasure. All in the hope that God will be present in us to make us bear fruit; that he will sow his seed in our lives by his Word and his Spirit; and that we will become pregnant by him, carriers of a new life which transcends our egocentric existence.
If this seems risqué, it is only what the Christian tradition has stated for 2,000 years in affirming that Mary, the image of human faithfulness, was “covered” by the Holy Spirit, or that she was “pregnant” by him, and that she gave life to Christ. And Mary is us, she is the pure virgin, betrothed to the bridegroom who is God – just as we are called to be.
We are those promised to God. God wishes to unite himself to us, to take us in marriage. Let us accept with joy the consummation of this marriage of grace.
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