6 January 2014

THE NUPTIALS OF GOD

According to the Antiphon to the Benedictus in both forms of the Roman Divine Office on the day of the Epiphany, Christ washes, today, His Spouse in the Jordan; the Magi bring the sensuous Wedding Gifts of gold and incense and myrrh; the Guests are made merry (laetantur) by the water made into wine (Prudentius was convinced it must have been Falernian, Vendemmia Miracolosa one presumes). Eric Gill had got a grasp on an essential truth when he wrote that "I wish I could get you to see the point about Christianity - e.g. when we 'marry' we don't say to a girl: Madam, you realise that we are the embodiment of an idea. We say: Darling, we two persons are now one flesh. It is a love affair first and last. Joining the Church is not like joining the Third International. It is like getting married". And Gill expressed this in his memorable woodcut of the Crucified One being nuptially embraced upon the cross by a female figure clad in her all-enveloping hair: "the Nuptials of God"; an engraving which has been described as both obscene and blasphemous.

We now know that Eric Gill was a distinctly flawed character; and it is not so long ago that there was a campaign for his Stations of the Cross to be removed from Westminster Cathedral. (But not, strangely, for the destruction of his carvings all round Broadcasting House; that was in the serene days pre-Savill when the lordly Beeb dripped down easy moral disdain upon the rest of us from its carefree heaven.) But it is the Devil's trick to mar what is good, and the Christian instinct to affirm its goodness despite the perversions of the Evil One. "The Nuptials of God" received a striking sort of Imprimatur through its use in 1929 on the Ordination Card of the great Dominican writer on Spirituality, Fr Gerald Vann.

The imagery of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb picks up the imagery of Hosea (2:16), Isaiah (54:6) and Ezekiel (16:7 seq) to point to the intimate and indissoluble Union of God Incarnate with the Community called out, ecclesia, from the Side of the New Adam; Flesh of his Flesh and Blood of his Blood; and it is found in the Pauline (Ephesians 5: 25 seqq) as well as in the Johannine and Synoptic (Matt 22; Mark 2) traditions of the New Testament.

As Gill pointed out, this union is physical and not simply conceptual. In a sermon of 1843 for which he was suspended for two years from preaching before this University, Dr Pusey looted paragraph after paragraph from the Greek Fathers so as to speak of Christ as "penetrating" the Eucharistic Communicant; in a fleshly as well as in a spiritual sense. I have sometimes wondered whether, in those days before Freudian innuendo, Pusey sensed any frisson of sexuality in his mode of expression. But his point was one which speaks as sharply to the modern error of despiritualising flesh as it does to the Victorian propensity for decarnalising spirituality. Neither of the two is Christian Truth. Against each heresy the Church opposes her two, shattering, carnal dogmas which the nervous and neurotic World can never accept: Transsubstantiation and Mary the Mother of God.

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