Question: “Union with Christ”, can you deepen for me the reasons why this is the ideal answer? There are many answers that we can say or use, and our answers always fall short of the reality.
Jesus in St. John talks about “being one”. St. Paul mentions “Christ living in me”. “Died with Christ, risen with Christ,” alludes to a deep union. Is “union” according to Tradition a preferred term? St. John of the Cross speaks about “Union of Love”, and St. Teresa of Avila speaks more about “Spiritual Marriage”.
Answer: First and foremost, in order to give it a good answer, it is advisable to see what God says to us in the Scriptures. He is our guide, He knows us, and He knows what is best for us.
It is true that when Jesus is praying to the Father in St. John’s Gospel Chapter 17: 11, 21, 22, when just on the verge of starting his Passion and Redemption, He rather seems to be talking about “being one.” St. Therese endorses it with the words: I prefer unity rather than union. “Union” implies there are still two of us while “unity” stresses we become one. This is correct, nobody can challenge this. However, if for the first time we are facing someone with the goal of our Christian life, the term “unity” could be a little too strong. Such a strong expression should not be used this early, as it could be a little confusing in the sense that the person can easily assume that if we become one with Jesus, He certainly will have absorbed their being, and therefore the question which would then arise is: what then happens to us? Do we disappear?
When we speak about union, we first of all find that it relates to human marriage. In fact, God describes human marriage in very strong terms: they become one… what God has united let not man put asunder. This is enforced by the way the man knows his wife and is something always expressed in very deep and stirring words. In this sense, the physical reality of marriage is the first union upon which we are invited to meditate and to contemplate, not under our own sensual categories or material ways, but adhering to God’s ones. He is emphatic about this type of union. Not only this, but he underlines the fact that his union is not the union simply of two beings, but the union of two beings who are similar and who can act together as one. Therefore, when God is trying to find another creature to fill the loneliness of Adam, He searches for a creature who is similar with whom he can collaborate, work with, help, support and do the same things together. “The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”” (Gen. 2:18)
One can notice the loneliness of Adam as being a very deep statement about God’s state and God’s desire to find us and be united to us. This is a very deep insight into God’s Being. God is in search of a companion, face to face, somebody with whom He can interact face to face, can share the same breath, the same life – a companion pure and simple.
Moreover, this image of union or marriage is not used only once, it is constantly used in the Old Testament before even being used by Christ himself.
Thus in Hosea we have powerful expressions of love where God himself is the Groom and his People, Israel is the Bride.
“Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her. 15There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a a door of hope. There she will respond b as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt. 16“In that day,” declares the Lord, “you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master.’ 17 I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips; no longer will their names be invoked. 18 In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety. 19 I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in d righteousness and justice, in e love and compassion. 20 I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord.” (Hosea 2:14-20)
We can be constantly tempted to think that union or marriage is an image, a symbol, and nothing more, while in fact these amazing verses are open windows, allowing us to have a glimpse into the Devouring Fire who is God. He himself clearly states He is a Devouring Fire and that He is Jealous: who can understand these expressions when applied to God? Who can measure this divine thirst for us? For each one of us? Who can understand his Holy Name: Yahweh, which is a verb for “desire”, a verb which expresses divine yearning? This is what constitutes his very nature!
The image of marriage, then, is repeated comes back again and again. We find it in Ezekiel where God uses Ezekiel as an example of God himself, of his loneliness, his betrayed or forgotten love: God deprives Ezekiel of his wife who dies. This is for us to reflect and ponder! We are his bride. What is our stance? Do we stand face to face before Him? His mirror-image, standing before of Him? Acknowledging Him as our partner? Or are we trying to find other partners?
Here again is how God will express his burning Fire, in marital terms, in nuptial terms:
“1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2“Son of man, confront Jerusalem with her detestable practices 3 and say, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says to Jerusalem: Your ancestry and birth were in the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. 4 On the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to make you clean, nor were you rubbed with salt or wrapped in cloths. 5No one looked on you with pity or had compassion enough to do any of these things for you. Rather, you were thrown out into the open field, for on the day you were born you were despised.
6“ ‘Then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood, and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, “Live!” 7 I made you grow like a plant of the field. You grew and developed and entered puberty. Your breasts had formed and your hair had grown, yet you were stark naked.
8“ ‘Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your naked body. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign Lord, and you became mine.
9“ ‘I bathed you with water and washed the blood from you and put ointments on you. 10I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put sandals of fine leather on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. 11 I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, 12 and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. 13 So you were adorned with gold and silver; your clothes were of fine linen and costly fabric and embroidered cloth. Your food was honey, olive oil and the finest flour. You became very beautiful and rose to be a queen. 14And your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, because the splendor I had given you made your beauty perfect, declares the Sovereign Lord.
15 “‘But you trusted in your beauty and used your fame to become a prostitute. You lavished your favors on anyone who passed by and your beauty became his. 16 You took some of your garments to make gaudy high places, where you carried on your prostitution. You went to him, and he possessed your beauty. 17 You also took the fine jewelry I gave you, the jewelry made of my gold and silver, and you made for yourself male idols and engaged in prostitution with them. 18And you took your embroidered clothes to put on them, and you offered my oil and incense before them. 19Also the food I provided for you—the flour, olive oil and honey I gave you to eat—you offered as fragrant incense before them. That is what happened, declares the Sovereign Lord.
20“ ‘And you took your sons and daughters whom you bore to me and sacrificed them as food to the idols. Was your prostitution not enough? 21You slaughtered my children and sacrificed them to the idols. 22In all your detestable practices and your prostitution you did not remember the days of your youth, when you were naked and bare, kicking about in your blood.” (Eze. 16:1-22)
This, then, is followed by the entire book of the Song of Songs of Solomon: a marvellous description of the intimate love between God (Jesus) and the Bride (Mary, the Church, each one of us). This is the “Holy of the Holies” of the knowledge and experience of God’s Love, and Union.
In the New Testament, God takes on human nature, the human nature of a man, and He describes himself as the Groom. We can even consider some common texts and see how they open for us new avenues into the Lord’s way of seeing his relationship with each one of us. When, for example, they asked Him if a man could divorce his wife, Jesus, the Groom, the only groom replies: “from the beginning it was not this way” (Mt. 19:8). Of course, on the surface He is talking about the relationship between man and woman. But at a deeper level, as we have seen above, the real Adam is Jesus himself. This is why He calls himself the “Groom” and the real woman is each one of us, hence leading to a deeper reading of Genesis 2. In this sense, then, we can also read the following: the human being was never meant to be separated from God.
Significantly then, why is Christian marriage indissoluble? Because of one reason only: it is instituted in the image of an indissoluble marriage, i.e. the marriage between Jesus and each one of us, between Jesus and the Church, between God and his people.
From these writings it is clear that the notion of union stays central throughout the Scriptures. Union relates to marriage and marriage is union. What God united, let not man put asunder. First and foremost, however, we must consider that we are talking about union, the marriage between the human being and God.
A further image can also be viewed, namely, the Wedding at Cana which is the first and the last sign that Jesus performs in St. John’s Gospel.
It is indeed the first – at the forefront of the Signs St. John presents! Let us notice that on purpose we are deliberately not told who the Groom and the Bride are, because for St. John each one of Jesus’ disciples is the bride and Jesus is the Groom! But first and foremost, Jesus’ Mother is the main and essential bride. She is the New Eve, the Woman! This is the reason for her being called “woman” during Cana’s Wedding because she is taken from Him, namely, she is the first one to come out of his side on the Cross, she is truly flesh of his flesh, bone of his bones! It is worthy of note, too, that this is also very Eucharistic (“this is my body…”).
Of great interest is the fact that St. John starts the first of his examples with the nuptial sign and finishes with it, and also does the same in the Book of Revelation. In the latter this is found in the first vision even if not explicitly nuptial and in the last two chapters of the Book which describes the wedding of Jesus and his Bride. The entire book, in fact, is on the preparation for this wedding.
Again, at the foot of the Cross, the one who comes first from his opened side, Mary, his mother, is called again “woman”. The New Adam, as we find is in Genesis 2, contemplates this amazing new being, and describes it by saying what he finds in her: the similarity, the total capacity for a companionship, i.e. for marriage and bearing children – she is flesh of my flesh, she comes from me, I can see this.
Deep mysteries to be thought on, indeed.
Baptism is traditionally seen as a nuptial sacrament (see St. John Chrysostom’s homilies on Baptism), where Jesus is the Groom and the baptised person is the Bride.
In addition, the essence of the Eucharist can be seen as nuptial. If in human marriage man and woman give everything to the other, here in the Eucharist Jesus gives us all his being: body, soul, spirit and divinity and much more, because Jesus has in Him all creation and all human beings. Both on the Cross, and in the Eucharist, Jesus does not keep anything for himself. All that He has He gives. This is even stronger than human marriage! In fact, human marriage is shaped in the image of the Marriage and Union of Jesus with each one of us and not vice versa! This leaves consecrated people who are betrothed to Jesus, in the “original” relationship, with the real Groom authentically married, and leaves married people only with a “photocopy” (so to speak) of the real Marriage. The consecrated have the real deal. This is why they are called Jesus’ brides; this is why they dress for their solemn Profession as brides and sometimes wear a wedding ring.
Returning to the Eucharist, moreover, we can see that because of its all-encompassing dimension, it must be seen as a Union, a Comm-union.
If we look at the first part of last century’s renewal in Spiritual Theology, the notion of union was very prominent. It is true that other expressions were also used, i.e. “perfection” “perfection of Love”, “holiness”, but of them all the notion of Union remains central.
St. John of the Cross uses “Union of Love” with Jesus as the Groom! One can contemplate his book “Spiritual Canticle” to see the most nuptial book ever written. It tells us the story of the development and growth of divine love between the human being who becomes the bride and is united with Jesus the Groom. The future bride, wounded by the fiery love of the Groom, goes out in search of Him and grows, is purified, transformed, prepared and adorned by the Holy Spirit and betrothed to the Groom, Jesus, in love.
“Union” is not the only expression, but it is still very probably the strongest and most evocative one, because human marriage is involved and is probably the strongest living image of the mystical love between Jesus and each one of us.
When the Doctors of Spiritual Life explain “union” to us they talk about two things: 1- the moment of fuller union with Christ, i.e. Spiritual Marriage, and that this means to them that the human being has entered a new state, 2- a state of Union. It is like marriage for when one marries, he or she not only is wed, but also starts a new life in this state and stays married and bears fruits to God.
It is also quite common, with a great number of people from youth onwards, to want to find the love of their life, to love and be loved to the fullest extent! Often it is a natural desire in many, and equally often it is also repressed or disappointed or wounded through human experience. Isn’t this deep genuine desire in us the hidden divine desire that God left in us, so that by his grace we can search for Him and find Him and finally find the one and only Groom – One who is human and divine at the same time? The fullness of love, the real Prince Charming. The fulfilment of all our desires to love and be loved. He is human, He can understand us, we can relate to Him! He is divine, God, therefore He can fill the infinite thirst we have in our heart to love and be loved. Isn’t our heart created in His image and likeness? Aren’t we all called to experience the passion of his fiery love? Aren’t we all called to love Jesus with all our heart, all our soul, all our energy, all our mind? Why so? Because He loves us with all his heart, all his soul, all his energy, all his mind. Because He is the only one who can fill our infinite thirst to the brim.
He dares to ask us for everything because He wants to give us everything. To whoever gives Him everything, He shows a Royal Love like no other love on earth. He is not asking for half of our desire, half of our heart, half of our time! He is asking for everything! A Devouring Fire. A Divine Passion.
Ministering Jesus’ Love
The vocation of the minister of Jesus is to discover this love in himself and to experience the fullness of love itself. He is then sent by Jesus to show others the real Groom and how to fall in love with Him and experience the fullness of Jesus’ love. Does he really have another mission?
This is what St. Paul means when he says the words “I betrothed you as a bride to Christ, namely, I am jealous as to you with the jealousy of God. For I have betrothed you to one husband, to present a pure virgin to Christ.” (2 Co 11:2)
Do we need clearer words than this?
Going Deeper: Jesus’ Baptism, the Cross
If we deepen our understanding of Jesus’ Baptism, if we try to put ourselves in his shoes so to speak, we will find that his main aim is to unite himself with us, not becoming a sinner like us, or having a fallen nature, but by transforming us into Him, bringing us to his light and love.
If we go deeper into his Baptism and his further baptism as He calls his Passion (“I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and how I am distressed until it should be accomplished!” (Luke 12:50)), we begin to understand that what He earnestly wants is to unite himself to each one of us. In fact, “baptism” is an immersion, it tries as much as possible physically to mimic a deep transformation and union. He is baptised in us, He carries us. But also, from the beginning of His Passion He carries each one of us in Him and pulls us back to his light and love. This is the mystical operation of redemption. As the real Good Shepherd, He crosses the abyss that separates Him from us, searches for we, who are lost, in the darkness, and having found us He carries and supports us! Here starts the mystery of the mystical operation of Redemption: in fact, He proceeds, with the operation through the Holy Spirit, God’s Charity and He unites his body with ours, his soul to ours, and his spirit and divinity to ours. In uniting us to Him He roots us in Him. This mystical operation He himself calls: Baptism: “I have a baptism with which to be baptised” (Luke 12:50), alluding to the Cross.
Like a sponge, his body absorbs, unites our body to his. His soul also, his spirit and divinity too. This is the result of what the Holy Spirit achieves between Jesus and us during the Passion and Crucifixion of the Lord. During this horrendous ordeal, during the six hours when He is suspended on the Cross, He seems fixed, not being able to move, but He is infinitely much more mobile than ever, with the mysterious operation of the immense love He has for us: the action of the Holy Spirit: “having loved his own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (John 13:1). How did he love them to the end? First the Father entrusted all of us to Him, then He unites all of us to himself: “knowing that the Father has given Him all things into his hands” (John 13:3). We are in the darkness, we became darkness because of our separation from God, because of our sins. Yet, despite this God the Father gives us into his hands! What a mystical undertaking!
2nd March 2022
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