On the Great Friday of the Crucifixion, the Maronite Church commemorates the death of the Son of God on the cross by celebrating the rite of the Adoration of the Cross. When one, however, closely looks at what the Church actually proclaims, one surprisingly discovers a fascinating and profound theological notion and a powerful biblical expression of salvation that one does not typically associate with a crucifixion: a wedding celebration. The objective of this article is to show that the Maronite Church announces that on the cross, Christ betrothed the Church. He is the Bridegroom, and she his Bride: his crucifixion is his wedding celebration to the Church.
This nuptial understanding of the crucifixion is common to all the Syriac Churches, and it is based on the writings of the Syriac Church Fathers, like Jacob of Sarug, who, in turn, inherited it from Scriptures. In this short presentation, we will limit our exploration of this theological interpretation of the historical event of the crucifixion only to certain scriptural passages and the current English edition of the Qurbono, or the Book of Offering According to the Rite of the Antiochene Syriac Maronite Church (2012)—henceforth, BO. Hence, it is advisable to have a Bible and the Book of Offering at hand when reading these few lines. As we will see, the liturgical text explicitly portrays salvation as a wedding celebration between Christ and the Church occurring on the cross.
Growing up attending the Maronite Church, I vividly remember the somber and gloomy ritual of the Great Friday of the Crucifixion. Everything in the church was covered in black, such as the altar, the pulpits, and the icons. The priest wore black vestments, wailing women black dresses, men dark suits and black ties, and the congregation sang dirges. The following song is a case in point:
O my people, friends, where is the faith and the love that you pledge to me? What crime have I done? Why do you treat me with great contempt and with scorn? Now in shame I die in between two thieves. Mother, do not cry. This only adds to my grief. Leave me. Go your way. Do not weep for me. Father, why am I here, all alone, in my pain? I am choked with tears; Father, hear my plea! (Great Friday of the Crucifixion: Rite of the Adoration of the Cross, processional hymn: ya sha’bee wa saẖbee, يا شعبي وصاحبي)
The service felt more like a funeral service than a celebration. It did, indeed, end with a burial, albeit not of a real person, but a Crucifix or statue of Christ! I had the impression that the congregation left the church downcast.
These visuals seemed to focus the faithful’s attention more on the demise of a human being rather than the theological import of Christ’s death, namely, that he is after all the Lord still ruling the universe although hung on a tree. Accompanied by several emotional songs that are void of theological significance, these visuals hid the essential meaning of the crucifixion.
One can understand the emotional overflow that the crucifixion elicits, for grief, sadness, shock, and other feelings are natural human reactions when one faces suffering and death, even those of another, let alone the death of our beloved Lord. Nonetheless, emotional pain and sorrow cannot and should not overshadow nor take away from what Jesus Christ has accomplished on the cross: our salvation. This salvation is clearly reflected in the prayers of the rite of the Adoration of the Cross:
On the cross, our Lord and God took possession of the earth. In the center of the world, he revealed that we are saved. When his voice resounded, tombs were opened wide, and the dead were raised.
What are we saved from? We are saved from death and its dark realm, for “death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting” (1 Cor 15:54-55)? The Divine Liturgy proclaims in this vein:
Christ is risen from the tomb and enlightens all the world. Choirs of angels shout for joy, and the seraphim rejoice. The ranks of the cherubim join in the praise: “Holy, holy Lord!” God the Father sent his Son to make Adam’s image new. The Ruler of all was enclosed within a tomb. He arose destroying death and its dark realm. Christ the King forever reigns (BO, 321)!
Consequently, the Great Friday of Crucifixion is both an awe-inspiring mystery and a joyous celebration, and the crucifixion should not be separated from the resurrection, as Rabbula (6th century) correctly suggests by depicting the crucifixion and the resurrection united in one scene.
Let us now look at how our salvation is portrayed as the wedding of Christ and the Church taking place on the cross.
Already the Old Testament refers to God as Israel’s Bridegroom and depicts his relationship to the Jewish Nation in nuptial terms:
On that day—oracle of the LORD— You shall call me ‘My husband,’ and you shall never again call me ‘My Baal.’ … I will betroth you to me forever: I will betroth you to me with justice and with judgment, with loyalty and with compassion; I will betroth you to me with fidelity, and you shall know the LORD (Hos 2: 16, 21-22).
This biblical text shows that marriage is a biblical metaphor depicting the covenant relationship between God and his people. That is also reflected in other biblical texts, such as Is 54:5–6; 62:5 and Ez 16:6–14. Idolatry and apostasy depicted as adultery and harlotry (see Hos 2:4–15; Ez 16:15–63), stand in opposition to this covenant.
Moreover, the Old Testament portrays the final salvation as a banquet: “On this mountain, the LORD of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines” (Is 6:25). Matthew takes up this notion and portrays Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob reclining at a banquet in the kingdom of heaven, and many joining them from the east and the west (Mt 8:11).
In line with the Old Testament, Jesus Christ describes salvation as a wedding banquet, but he depicts it as his own wedding banquet. He takes up the Old Testament bridal imagery and applies it to himself. He calls himself the bridegroom in Mk 2:19: “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.” He likens the kingdom of heaven to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son (see Mt 22:2). The son in this simile, which finds its parallels in Mt 9:15 and Lk 5:34-35, refers to Jesus. In the Parable of the Ten Virgins, Jesus portrays the kingdom of heaven as ten virgins who took their lamps, went out to meet the bridegroom, and the wise ones entered the wedding celebration (Mt 25:1). Once again, this parable refers to the kingdom of heaven as a wedding, and Jesus is the awaited Bridegroom. Hence, these biblical references show that Christ represents salvation as his own wedding banquet.
The covenant of marriage is already established in Gn 2:24: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” Although this verse could be applied to any husband and wife, the Apostle Paul finds a deeper meaning in it. He interprets it in nuptial terms between Christ and the Church, saying: “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church” (Eph 5:32). In 2 Cor 11:2 Paul reiterates that Christ is the Bridegroom, and the Church at Corinth the Bride. The book of Revelation invokes this bridal imagery, stating: “For the wedding day of the Lamb has come, his bride has made herself ready” (Rev 19:7), and “I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21:2). That the new Jerusalem is a symbol of the Church is suggested in Gal 4:26 where she is also called our mother: “But the Jerusalem above is freedom, and she is our mother.”
So far, we have seen that Scriptures describe salvation as a wedding between Christ and the Church. Let us now turn our attention to the Maronite Book of Offering. We find there references to Jesus Christ as the Heavenly Bridegroom (BO, 179), the true Bridegroom (BO, 320), and the faithful Groom who loves and keeps us in the palm of his hand (BO, 506). The Church is also depicted as the Bride of Christ (BO, 506) on whose head there is a crown, and Peter and Paul are two jewels adorning it (BO, 567). The image of a crowned Church brings to mind the rite of Crowning during which the priest crowns a groom and a bride, types (symbols) of Christ the heavenly Bridegroom and the Church, his Bride.
We saw above that Paul in 2 Cor 11:2 refers to Christ and the community as Bridegroom and Bride. The entrance hymn of the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul cites 2 Cor 11:2 and expands its notion:
Alleluia! Speaking to the Church, Paul said: “I have betrothed you to the Son of God, your Groom, who came and chose you to be his bride” (BO, 563).
While in 2 Cor 11:2 Paul betrothed the church at Corinth to Christ, the Divine Liturgy sees in the Corinthian community an image of the entire Church.
Where and when did this wedding between Christ and the Church occur? According to the Syriac theological worldview, this wedding takes place in two places. The Jordan River is the first place. The Maronite liturgical text refers to John the Baptist as the best man (see Jn 3:29) who witnessed the betrothal of your [God the Father] holy Church to your Son (BO, 886). Furthermore, it describes John the Baptist as the star who came to announce: “After me shall come the Groom to betroth the Church, his Bride, with waters blest, when he comes to be baptized” (BO, 118). Lest we veer off topic, I shall leave this theme of the wedding at the Jordan River to another time.
Golgotha is the other place where Christ marries the Church according to the Maronite liturgy: “Blest are you, O Faithful Church, Jesus is your holy Groom. When nailed on the saving cross, he made you his Bride” (BO, 622). The liturgical text makes it clear that the Church becomes the Bride of Christ when Christ was nailed on the cross and lifted up. Hence, the crucifixion is Christ’s wedding to his Church. Indeed, “On the cross, our Lord betrothed the Church as his Bride” (BO, 653).
In sum, the Maronite Church explains Christ’s salvific actions on the cross in nuptial terms: Jesus Christ, the heavenly Bridegroom, weds the Church, his earthly Bride, on the cross. Hence, one of the essential meanings of the Great Friday of the Crucifixion is the everlasting wedding celebration between Jesus Christ and the Church. Does this celebration include a wedding banquet, and what does this banquet consists of?
A wedding banquet is a feature of any wedding. The guests take and eat of the food and drink which the hosts, that is the groom and bride, offer. Consequently, it is logical to ask if Jesus Christ and his Bride, the Church, offer some kind of a banquet. You have correctly guessed the answer: the Divine Liturgy is their wedding banquet.
The nuptial aspect of the crucifixion is carried into the meaning of the Divine Liturgy. The Qurbono (the Eucharist) is the wedding of Jesus Christ and the Church and their wedding banquet. At this unique and extraordinary wedding celebration, the heavenly Bridegroom is the host and the banquet, and the Church is both the Bride and the guest. The Divine Liturgy also commemorates the crucifixion. This sacramental view of the crucifixion gets its significance from the Gospel of John. To make sure that Jesus has died on the cross, “one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out” (Jn 19:34). The blood flowing out of the side of Jesus refers to his sacramental body and blood on the altar, and the water indicates baptism. At the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, the Church approaches the altar to receive what is flowing from the side of her Lord and Savior.
The Maronite Church portrays this reception dramatically and poetically, stating: “Hear the prayers of your Church, your Bride, who embraces and kisses your wounds” (BO, 301). The Divine Liturgy also proclaims:
O Priest and Sacrifice, O Host and Banquet, accept our incense and prayers at this Paschal feast in which you have allowed us to participate, by giving us your Body to eat and your Blood to drink (BO, 310).
Jesus Christ is the “the Banquet of joy, and the hungry have eaten from you have been satisfied” (BO, 230). The Bridegroom provides his own body and blood as heavenly nourishment for his Bride:
I was amazed at the feast that Christ prepared for the blessed Church, his Bride … on the altar, there was placed Christ’s own Body and his Blood for the pardon of all sins (BO 13, 356).
Once again, we see that the Maronite Church portrays salvation as the eternal wedding banquet of Jesus and the Church, “a feast on which the sun never sets” (BO, 368).
The summit of the celebration of the Divine Liturgy is the reception of the Eucharist, that is the faithful’s participation in Christ’s heavenly wedding banquet. That means that he forgives our sins and promises us eternal salvation. Therefore, it is imperative for the priest to remind distinctly each and every communicant of the fact that “the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ are given to you for the forgiveness of your sins and eternal life” (BO, 790). That is the core meaning of our salvation. The Church is no longer a stranger to the household of God but its Lady, for she is the Bride of the Son of God and is eternally delighting in and rejoicing at her wedding banquet.
A long time ago, it was common for heads of families to barter for the joining of their children in matrimony. The suitor brought an appropriate dowry in exchange for a woman he desired to marry. Crassly put, he purchased her. The Son of God saw that the only befitting dowry to offer the Church is himself, for he loved the Church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her (see Eph 5:25-27); he loved the world (see Jn 3:16), and “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends“ (Jn 15:13). By his own passion and pouring of his own blood, Christ “purchased” the Church. This theme of the heavenly Bridegroom purchasing his Bride finds its way into the Divine Liturgy:
Lord Jesus, accept and be pleased with the fragrance of this incense from your Church, your flock, whom you have redeemed by your passion and have purchased with your precious blood (BO, 301).
Therefore, Jesus Christ is the Church’s dowry: he himself is his gift to his Bride. Since Christ is the Church’s dowry, nothing can ever separate them. If he were to choose to repudiate her, he would have to hand her dowry to her. That means he would have to give her himself. Hence, this dowry image serves to say that Christ and the Church are forever united.
Blessed are you, holy and most faithful Church, for the Groom, betrothed to you, brought you into pastures green. At your feast he mixed a cup; those who drink it thirst no more. Come and eat fire in the bread. Drink the Spirit in the wine. Clothed in Spirit and in fire, you shall be with him, his bride (BO, 12).
The Church is wherever Jesus Christ is, and she follows him wherever he goes. She dies, as he did. She is buried, as he was buried. She is raised in glory, as he arose from the grave: “O Christ the Bridegroom, you betrothed the Church by your life-giving passion, and raised her up with you in glory” (BO, 330). Just as he arose destroying death and its dark realm, she, in turn, will trample upon death and its domain.
The Bible describes salvation as Christ’s eternal wedding banquet. Jesus Christ is the Bridegroom, and the Church the Bride. The Divine Liturgy of the Maronite Church employs this nuptial imagery in its prayers and proclaims that this heavenly wedding took place on the cross. Hence, when the Church celebrates the Great Friday of the Crucifixion, the Church commemorates the death of the Son of God on the cross, celebrates his wedding to the Church, and proclaims that Jesus Christ and the Church and forever unified.
What the Maronite Church proclaims is hugely significant because it speaks of the salvation of human beings, of your and my salvation. An eternal wedding celebration reflects joy, happiness, and hope. Death is no longer a reality to dread! The wedding banquet we celebrate at the altar symbolically, we will celebrate in fact after our departure, when we are forever unified with Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior!
In light of Syriac theology, how do I now see the ritual of the Great Friday of the Crucifixion? It is no longer a bleak and somber rite. The human emotional dimension associated with it cannot be denied, yet the crucifixion of our Lord and Savior is, more importantly, an awe-inspiring event, an incomprehensible mystery, a celebration of our salvation, and the source of eternal joy: it is the wedding celebration of Christ and the Church! Therefore,
let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory. For the wedding day of the Lamb has come, his bride has made herself ready. She was allowed to wear a bright, clean linen garment … Blessed are those who have been called to the wedding feast of the Lamb (Rev 19:7-9).