Most people today tend to think of and describe the Church in very institutional terms. The usual pronoun used in reference to the Church is “it” rather than the more traditional “she” or “her.” There is very little love for an institution or abstraction. In fact there tends today to be a downright cynicism for institutions or entities perceived as institutional. And so the Church is often dismissed in very impersonal terms: “It is so out of touch….., it is corrupt……, it ran the crusades…..it conducted the inquisition, and so forth. Even faithful believers usually refer to the Church as “it.” Our modern liturgical translations don’t help much since they too, more often than not, refer to the Church as “it.” But the Church is not an “it” she is the Bride of Christ. She is mother to us. The Church is also the Body of Christ. These images are deeply personal and we should make every effort to begin anew in thinking of the Church in these terms. I would like to look at these descriptions of the Church briefly and encourage you to readopt them if you have need to. It will help us and others to love the Church as God loves the Church which is Body, Bride and Mother.
The Church is first of all the beautiful Bride of Christ. She is his bride and he loves her intensely. As the first Adam’s bride came forth from his wounded side in the taking of his rib, so the New Adam came to redeem his bride and her new life came forth from from his wounded side. He loves her willingly and hands himself over for her, he dies for her. (Eph 5:19ff). The reality of the Church as bride really begins with the Old Testament. One of the more common ways God chooses to describe his relationship with Israel is in terms of a marriage (e.g. Hosea 1-3; Ezek 16) and His relationship with her is called a covenant. The New Testament also calls God’s Church a bride (Rev 22:17; Eph 1:4; 5:27; 1 Cor 6:15-17; 2 Cor 11:2). Here it is important for us to understand that the Israel and the Church are not two different brides. St. Paul is clear to teach in Romans 11, that the true Israel consists of Jews and Gentiles who have faith in Christ Jesus. Thus the Church is the same Israel but now consisting of both Jews and Gentiles who believe in Christ Jesus.
Since the Church is Christ’s Bride then each of us, members of the Church, are also espoused to Christ and to God. St Paul wrote: I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband. (2 Cor 11:2). Just as the Church is called to be faithful to Christ, so too are we as individual members of the Bride called to that same fidelity.
In an extended and complimentary sense the Church is also Mother to us since we come forth from the womb of the baptismal font through the chaste union of Christ and his Bride. Some decades ago it was common to hear the Church called “Holy Mother Church.” Again a very personal and endearing image. The Church like a mother brings us to birth, feeds us, cares for us and instructs us. The Church is not an “it.” Rather she is Bride and mother.
The Church is also the Body of Christ. As St. Paul writes, Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Cor 12:27) St. Paul goes on to develop this image in great detail in Chapter 12 of the First Letter to the Corinthians. Just as a body is one but has different members with different functions, so it is with the Church, the Body of Christ (See also Eph 4:11ff). Each of us has different gifts and fulfills different functions but it is all the work of the one Body. And no one member should feel any more or less important because of their function for in a body all parts and functions are essential for the well being of the whole body. This is how it is with the Church as well. And, Jesus Christ is the head of the Body, the Church (Col 1:18). Thus, we all have a unity and can work together only because Christ is our head, uniting and directing us. Hence the Church is the very precious and holy Body of Christ. Through his Body the Church Christ continues to speak to our world, to stretch out his hands to feed and heal, and to manifest his presnce to the world.
Complementary images but one reality – But you may wonder how can the Church be both Bride of Christ and Body of Christ? And yet this is not only possible but it is essential to understanding the Church as a marital union of Christ and His Bride. The scriptural teaching about marriage is that the two spouses become one. And thus it is that the Church is at one and the same time the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ. Christ says of Bride and Groom, They are no longer two, they are one (Matt 19:6). And St. Paul directly links this mystery to the Church and Christ: Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.”For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church(Eph 5:28-32).
In terms of her human members the Church is imperfect and sinful. But she is no less loved by Christ. In her Bridegroom and the Divine Head of the Church, the Church is perfect. We ought to love her personally and intensely. She is not an institution, not an “it” she is Bride, She is Mother, The Church is the Body of Christ.
As a priest, I am not a bachelor. I have a bride, the Church. She is a beautiful (and demanding) bride. Religious Sisters are not single either. One of the beautiful images of women religious is that they are Brides of Christ. In this video from the Nun’s Story, the postulants are invested in their habits. In the traditional ceremony the women come in dressed in bridal gowns of the world and and then depart to be invested in the bridal gowns of their religious habits. They are brides of Christ, imaging the the Church as Bride and mother.