The Delicate Balance of the Masculine and Feminine in the Church

English: Holy Mother of God Church in Velmej, ...

Maybe, after the article I wrote on the Mystical Body of Christ, it would be a good time to look at the Catholic Church through the lens of some of the other titles Christians have used for Her. Notice that I referred to the Church as Her, a feminine reference that might seem strange since we just wrote an article about how the Church is in a very real way, Christ Himself; purely masculine. But that is not the end of the story.

So the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ and Christ is the Vine where all the branches find their life by being attached and nourished by Him; but She is so much more than that. The Blessed Virgin is known as the Mother of the Church yet Her offspring, the Church, is a Mother Herself. The Church is addressed as Holy Mother Church and also as the Bride of Christ. How can this be? The interplay of the masculine and the feminine in the Catholic Church is no more apparent than in these analogous references: the Church as Jesus, the Church as His Bride and the Church as the children of His Blessed Mother.  As the title of this post implies, this is a delicate balance that needs to be explained: for we are the only Church of which I am aware that helps its members gain a fuller understanding of this complete an utter mystery we call Church. Though it is a mystery, we can gain fruitful insights and understanding into the unexplainable and mysterious union known to the world as the Catholic Church.

To unravel this a bit we need to look to the Scriptures where Christ speaks of Himself as the Bridegroom.

“And Jesus said to them: Can the children of the bridegroom mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast.” __ Matt. 9:15

He was speaking of His disciples as the children of the bridegroom. So who is the Bride? Mary, His Blessed Mother, is a real possibility, since His disciples could be thought of as His Church. But that would be an incestuous metaphor for the Church; unless of course, as is the case, Mary is a model of the Church and Mother of the Church in a purely spiritual realm. The spiritual realm is devoid of the sexuality that is normally attendant in a material relationship. It is only a way to help us understand not only the Church Herself but the continuing role of Christ and His Mother in the Life of the Church.

“He that hath the bride, is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, who standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth with joy because of the bridegroom’s voice. This my joy therefore is fulfilled.” __ John 3:29

When John the Baptist addressed those who wanted to know if he was the Messiah replied with the above statement. John insinuates that Christ is the Bridegroom because He possesses the Bride. He apparently is speaking of all who hear and follow Christ which by extension would mean His Church. So in this instance, Christ seems to be wed to each of His disciples in the spiritual realm. In referring to the marriage of each of our souls to Christ we come to understand the union that we are called to: a spiritual union that is stronger than the bonds of marriage. This union will last throughout eternity and will not dissolve when our temporal lives are finished.

“And there came one of the seven angels, who had the vials full of the seven last plagues, and spoke with me, saying: Come, and I will shew thee the bride, the wife of the Lamb. And he took me up in spirit to a great and high mountain: and he shewed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” __ Rev. 21:2,9-10

John’s vision of Heaven includes this poignant scene of the New Jerusalem which is a reference to the Church and would by extension include all those who were saved within the body of the Church. So in some ways one might also say that the individual souls of the faithful are in some way betrothed to Christ as inferred in the previous quote. Note: the Church has traditionally referred to all souls, whether of men or women, with feminine pronouns.

I would be remiss if I didn’t draw your attention to the actions of Christ while He hung dying from the cross. John, the writer of Revelation, who attended to Christ’s Mother might very well be thought of as the first mystical saint. He always referred to himself as the beloved disciple. It seems that John felt keenly the betrothal of his soul to Christ and may have been the first of the mystical saint to have experience spiritual union. I do not have time in the post to get too much deeper into mystical prayer and the spirituality of the mystics but you would do well to read about them or from their works to get a better understanding of this.

Now Christ turned to His mother from the cross and said: “Mother behold your son”, and to John he likewise said: “Behold your mother”. From the human and temporal side of things this passage is easily understood and John from that day forth took care of Christ’s mother. But the use of the word ‘mother’ and ‘son’ have other implications.

One observation might be that Christ made His mother, the Mother of His Church at that moment. For John was the only representative of the chosen leaders in the new Church to be present. At the very least, Christ made the proclamation to the world, should we want to accept it as His intention. One can also say that Mary was already the Mother of the Church as She is indisputably the Mother of Christ and therefore the Mother of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, as well.

Further, if John did arrive at spiritual union with Christ, he had a spiritual sonship to Christ’s mother and I’m sure a book could be written about such a notion. Nevertheless, it suffices that John represented the Church at the Crucifixion and was told to take Mary as his mother.

This play of masculine and feminine elements in the Church is balanced and requires us to think of our relationship to Christ and to the Church as a spiritual marriage: an everlasting union. It unites us to Christ and by this union we have been adopted by His mother as well. She is our advocate and model for the Christian life. She nourishes and protects us as she did her own divine Son.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks as follows:

796 The unity of Christ and the Church, head and members of one Body, also implies the distinction of the two within a personal relationship. This aspect is often expressed by the image of bridegroom and bride. The theme of Christ as Bridegroom of the Church was prepared for by the prophets and announced by John the Baptist. The Lord referred to himself as the “bridegroom.” The Apostle speaks of the whole Church and of each of the faithful, members of his Body, as a bride “betrothed” to Christ the Lord so as to become but one spirit with him. The Church is the spotless bride of the spotless Lamb. “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her.” He has joined her with himself in an everlasting covenant and never stops caring for her as for his own body:

 This is the whole Christ, head and body, one formed from many . . . whether the head or members speak, it is Christ who speaks. He speaks in his role as the head (ex persona capitis) and in his role as body (ex persona corporis). What does this mean? “The two will become one flesh. This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the Church.” And the Lord himself says in the Gospel: “So they are no longer two, but one flesh.” They are, in fact, two different persons, yet they are one in the conjugal union, . . . as head, he calls himself the bridegroom, as body, he calls himself “bride.”

The interplay of masculine and feminine elements in the day to day operation of the Church in the world and in its worship may be a topic I will explore sometime in the near future. For our symbolism and our use of titles is not without deeper meaning and understanding.

The Mystical Body of Christ

Jesus Christ Crucifix

When we recognize that the Church Christ founded is not simply an organization comprised of bricks and mortar but a living organism, the Mystical Body of Christ, we start to understand how different it is from any organization that has ever been formed in history. The Church has also been characterized as a living vine, with the people as its branches. Both images bring forth an image of something alive and vital.

If the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, as scripture attests, we know that our allegiance is not with a group of people that have formed a corporate style of organization. Incredibly, this organization is our union with the One. And this One person that we belong to is Jesus Christ and this is the 1st mark of the Church; that it is One.

Because we belong to Jesus Christ and we know and believe in our hearts and minds that He is God we also belong to that which is always Holy. It can never be unholy as God can never be unholy. This is the 2nd mark of the Church: it is Holy. Though we often separate ourselves from Christ by sin or wound the Mystical Body of Christ, He is always willing to readmit us into His Body should we do penance and seek reconciliation. He grafts us back onto the Vine as St. Paul says. If not, we have severed our relationship to the only salvific means man has: Jesus Christ Himself.

Christ Jesus, though he came to the Jews, opened the gates wide and called all of mankind to Himself. It was a universal call to the world and that is why the Church will forever be called Catholic, the 3rd mark of the Church. The diversity within the Church and her presence throughout the world testifies that men from every corner of the earth have found Christ Jesus in His Mystical Body. They have eaten of His flesh and drunk of His blood and thereby find their life in the Lifeblood of Christ as a participation in His Person.

The Apostolic nature of the Mystical Body of Christ is that the Church is a living memory and living union with Christ that stretches back in history to the founding of the Church. For we are Apostolic: the 4th mark of the Church. As the Apostles were sent into the world to teach the Good News and to draw as many as would listen to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, we too are asked to do the same in every age and it is our participation in the Apostolic nature of this Mystical Body to be sent into the world and draw all things to Him. Our communion with the Lord is a participation in His love; the self-sacrificing love of a family member.

As I think about the characteristics of the Mystical Body, it strikes me that when we decided to take up membership in the Church (to be a member of the Mystical Body) and become a part of the Living God, we are called to share in His Life and in His sufferings as well. We don’t just take up membership, we take up His cross. We will take the stripes, wear the crown of thorns, be mocked for our beliefs, and ultimately carry our cross with Him and suffer agony with Him, both in body and in soul. The world will hate us as it did Him and scorn us for being a stumbling block to their worldly designs.

We sometimes forget as Christians what exactly we were called to. It is not the romanticized faith of warm and fuzzy feelings, honor, esteem and a successful and prosperous life. We know that our happiness does not reside in the world. We are called to something far greater than anything this world has to offer. In fact we reject the world and the things of this world and seek only to remain joined to our Head. If we live in Him and die in Him, we will also rise with Him and abide with Him in an endless participation in His Divinity. It is as  St. Athanasius said: “God became man so that man might become a god.”