With the mystery of woman, we learn how to be better ‘turned toward’ our heavenly Bridegroom
Often it seems that God speaks to me through my wife, Ann, the mother of our six children. Of course, I don’t mean that quite as literally as she would perhaps like me to believe at times. But in coming to better appreciate the very prophetic sense of help that is unique to her vocation as a woman, a wife and a mother, I also have come to better understand a very important truth of our Catholic faith.
In reflecting upon the description of woman found in Genesis 2:18, often translated as that of a “helper” or “partner” of man, some have pointed out that the fuller Hebrew meaning is that of “a helper turned toward him.” And I think herein lies a woman’s special gift that she prophetically shares. She shows not only what it means to be turned toward her husband, but especially what it means as a bride to be turned toward Christ our bridegroom. And so to the degree that we neglect the mystery of woman, we neglect the mystery of the Church and that of our own faith response as a bride of Christ.
Some men are surprised to learn, as I was, that through baptism each of us, male as well as female, becomes a bride of Christ. I had no problem accepting the Church as being the Bride of Christ, or even in thinking of a woman’s great dignity and vocation in life as that of being a bride of Christ as well. I further understood that through the sacrament of Holy Orders, priests and deacons were uniquely configured to the Bridegroom. But yet I still wasn’t exactly comfortable with thinking of myself as a bride, believing such reflections might somehow dilute or even worse, emasculate a man’s faith response. But quite to the contrary, such reflections upon the mystery of woman have only served to strengthen it.
The Church, as the Bride of Christ, represents the mystery of our union with God. This nuptial union of Christ and the Church, St. Paul reminds us, is a “great mystery” (Ephesians 5:32), and through our baptism, we are incorporated into this mystery as a bride of Christ. Communion means fruitfulness and so the Church calls us to respond to God with Mary’s fiat—“Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). And with her rosary we contemplate through her eyes and heart the mystery of the Bridegroom and the Bride.
I happened upon a wedding recently that was celebrated according to an Eastern Catholic Rite, which includes the crowning of the bridegroom and bride. The crown is a symbol of martyrdom and a sign of the sacrifice of Christ our bridegroom, who for love of his Bride says, “this is my body…, this is my blood,” and of that of his Bride who lovingly responds, “this too is my body…, this too is my blood.” For this reason we can perhaps understand why Blessed John Paul II calls the Eucharist “the sacrament of the Bridegroom and the Bride.”
In reflecting upon the mystery of woman, Russian Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov (1901-1970) comments that “she is like a mirror that reflects the face of man, reveals man to himself and thereby betters him (The Sacrament of Love, SVS Press, 1985). And it is in what a man sometimes sees in that mirror that causes him to “turn toward” Christ, like Peter finally did when put to the test. All four Gospels record the woman who confronts Peter warming himself by the fire in the high priest’s courtyard following Jesus’ arrest (Matthew 26:69-75 and parallels). No doubt we are familiar with Peter’s denials to the woman’s persistent questioning, culminating with his answer— “I do not know the man!” But what Peter said of Christ in his denial was more true of himself—he no longer knew himself in Christ. Only when Peter again “turned toward” Christ and beheld his gaze did he remember (Luke 22:61).
Perhaps owing to John’s closeness to the Blessed Mother, he was the only apostle to be found at the foot of the cross with Mary and three other women. Fear subsides and love grows stronger when we draw close to the Blessed Mother.
In John’s account of the resurrection, we read of Mary of Magdala, who in discovering the empty tomb ran to tell the others (John 20:1-8). But in seeing for themselves the empty tomb and not understanding, we are told the disciples “went home.” But Mary, to the contrary, remained “outside the tomb weeping” and was rewarded with the risen Christ for her vigil in staying close to the mystery of the Passion. As such, she became the first herald of the resurrection, proclaiming, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:1-8).
If holiness, as Pope John Paul II states, “is measured according to the ‘great mystery’ in which the Bride responds with the gift of love to the gift of the Bridegroom” (Dies Domini, n. 27), then we have much to learn from the mystery of woman.