What does the liturgy save for the end? In this final week of the liturgical year, what is the image that we use to conclude and summarize all that we have reflected upon, from Advent until now? What is our conclusion, our ultimate goal in the life of grace? St. Paul tells the Corinthians the following: “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 Corinthians 11:2). The final image of the liturgical year, the ultimate reflection of our life in Christ, is that of the heavenly Bridegroom Jesus Christ and his bride the Church. No image is so abundant in Scripture – in both the Old and New Testaments – and so intimate and intense in its expression of how deep and dear is our union with God through Jesus Christ. St. Paul, again, writes to the Ephesians regarding the relationship between husbands and wives; how wives should honor their husbands as the Church honors Christ; how husbands should love their wives as Christ loves the Church and gave himself over for her; but his conclusion in this section shows that he is not merely giving practical advice to the married: “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church.” (Ephesians 5:32).
It is somehow the case, in a “mysterious” way, that the “true” Groom and Bride are Christ and the Church, and the earthly groom and bride are intended to be reflections of this heavenly reality. This is not the case with every image of Christ; we do not say that earthly shepherds are to be reflections of the heavenly Shepherd, nor that earthly doctors are merely shadows of the Divine Physician. But this image seems somehow to be a special case.
Our final Basilica Hymn of the year takes up this image and applies it with great creativity to Christ and the Church, showing beautifully how much greater is the love of Christ for his Bride than any earthly love:
Give thanks, O Church, O Queen, to the King’s Son who has espoused you and brought you into his bedchamber. He has given you the dowry of blood that flowed from his side for you, clothed you with the robe of splendid unending light, and placed upon your head the adorned and illustrious crown of glory. As with a pure thurible, he has perfumed your scent before all, and has increased your radiance like a flower, blossoms and the buds of spring. And he freed you, on Golgotha, from slavery to idols. Therefore, adore his Cross, on which he suffered for you and exalted your lowliness, honor the priests who extol you with their works, and cry out to him: Glory to you!
There are three sections in this hymn which subsequently deepen its theological tone: first, there is an introduction and expression of the wedding theme:
Give thanks, O Church, O Queen, to the King’s Son who has espoused you and brought you into his bedchamber.
It is noteworthy that the first words are a command to show the Church how she is to respond to the indescribable gifts that are given to her.
The second section begins to make symbolic connections between the adornments of an earthly bride and the gifts that Christ has given to his Church:
He has given you the dowry of blood that flowed from his side for you, clothed you with the robe of splendid unending light, and placed upon your head the adorned and illustrious crown of glory. As with a pure thurible, he has perfumed your scent before all, and has increased your radiance like a flower, blossoms and the buds of spring.
As an earthly bride has a dowry, a dress, a crown, perfume and a bouquet of flowers, the Church has all of these things, but in a heavenly way: her dowry is the blood of Christ; her wedding dress is a robe of pure light; her crown is pure glory; her perfume is the incense of her Liturgies; her bouquet, amazingly, is spring itself, and all of nature, which is given over to her by the hands of her Husband and Creator.
The third section becomes totally explicit and leaves symbolism behind, but in doing so makes the previous symbols so much more potent:
And he freed you, on Golgotha, from slavery to idols. Therefore, adore his Cross, on which he suffered for you and exalted your lowliness, honor the priests who extol you with their works, and cry out to him: Glory to you!
Christ, on Golgotha, died for the Church, and in doing so freed her from the slavery of idolatry, giving her the freedom of true worship and union with God. Not only, therefore, is Christ the Bridegroom of the Church, but in his espousal, he has made the Church a Queen when she had previously been a slave. This is the primordial Cinderella tale – the tale of the lowly, sinful woman who was made pure and made royalty through the intercession of her Husband. But where the worldly bride has merely physical ornaments on her wedding-day, the Church has greater beauty and greater, spiritual gifts, coming from the side of Christ her Bridegroom and Savior.
Finally, the three commands given at the end of the hymn, which elaborate to the first command to “give thanks” which begins it, are: to adore the Cross of Christ, which is the instrument of her salvation and her freedom from slavery; to honor the priests who continue this mission of grace flowing from the side of Christ; and to praise her Bridegroom with all her heart and soul.