Wake up, for the Bridegroom is Coming

Every now and then, I hear a man refer to his wife of some years as his bride. Typically, the expression reflects the man’s continuing devotion, many years beyond the wedding, to the woman he married. What could be more lovely?

Yet often, instead of smiling at a husband’s term of endearment for his wife, I’ve wrinkled my nose in disapproval. “A woman is only a bride on her wedding day,” my nitpicky inner editor grumbles. “Once the ceremony is over, she’s no longer a bride, but a wife.”

In truth, though, my objection isn’t based merely on an imprecise word choice. It also stems from the idea of being held to a wedding-day standard of womanhood long after the big day is over. A bride, after all, symbolizes the apex of feminine beauty. Not only has she likely taken steps, on this day, to look better than she ever has; she is careful to comport herself with an extra measure of grace. As cameras flash and all eyes look her way, the smile must not falter, the patience not fail. That’s all well and good for one day, but who wants to keep it up the rest of her married life? Who possibly could?

Yet it is that very image of bridal perfection that is used repeatedly in Scripture to symbolize the Church — the family of God — as she waits for the arrival of Christ, her Bridegroom. Particularly in the hymns for this time of year, when liturgical churches celebrate the end of one church year and the beginning of the next, the image of the Church as bride looms large:

O bride of Christ, rejoice!
Exultant raise your voice
to hail the day of glory
foretold in sacred story.
Hosanna! Now adore him;
with praises bow before him!

(“O Bride of Christ, Rejoice”)

O Zion’s daughter, rise
To meet your lowly King,
Nor let your faithless heart despise
The peace He comes to bring.

(“The Advent of Our King”)

Zion hears the watchmen singing,
and all her heart with joy is springing;
she wakes, she rises from her gloom,
for her Lord comes down all-glorious,
the strong in grace, in truth victorious;
her Star is ris'n, her Light is come!
Ah, come, thou blessed Lord,
O Jesus, Son of God, alleluia!
We follow 'til the halls we see
where thou hast bid us sup with thee.

(“Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying”)

The Bridegroom soon will call us;
Shake off your drowsy sleep!
Lest carelessness befall us,
A watchful vigil keep!
May all our lamps be burning
With oil enough and more
That we, with him returning,
May find an open door!

(“The Bridegroom Soon Will Call Us”)

I find it personally ironic that, as someone who adores the hymns of this season, I am resistant to being called a bride at this point in my life. I’ve been married for almost 35 years. I am pretty sure I wouldn’t fit in my wedding dress anymore. If I somehow did, the dress would be complemented by a sprinkling of silvery white strands of hair that weren’t there 35 years ago. Instead of stylish white pumps, I would be shopping for not-too-ugly orthopedic shoes in which I could survive a day of standing. The makeup would need to be from the “age-minimizing” section of the cosmetics department.

But more significant than all of the visible manifestations of the passage of time that tell me I am no longer a bride are the invisible ones: the regrets, failures, disappointments and losses that come with living on this earth. I’m happily married to a wonderful man and I would go back and do it all again. But how little time it took for the wedding-day glow to wear off, the world to insert itself, the starry-eyed idealism to wane, and the reality of sin and brokenness to make itself known.

In a sermon preached in 1523 on Matthew 22:1-14, the Parable of the Wedding Feast, Martin Luther said:

“The great love Christ has for us is presented to us in this picture of the wedding feast. For there are many kinds of love, but none is so ardent and fervent as a bride's love, the love a new bride has to her bridegroom, and on the other hand, the bridegroom's love to the bride. … “This true bride-love God presented to us in Christ, in that he allowed him to become man for us and be united with our human nature that we might thus perceive and appreciate his good will toward us. …

“Now, what do we bring to him? Nothing but all our heart-aches, all our misfortunes, sins, misery and lamentations. He is the eternal light, we the eternal darkness; he the life, we death; he righteousness, we sin. This is a marriage that is very unequal.”

The Church is charged with faithfully watching, waiting and remaining ever vigilant until Christ’s return, but history records one failure after another on the part of God’s people. It started in Genesis and continues to this day. Instead of patiently awaiting the arrival of the One who will give — has already given — all we need, we repeatedly look elsewhere for something to fill the gaping hole in our collective heart.

Luther, again.

“But what does the bridegroom do? He is so fastidious that he will not dwell with his bride until he first adorns her in the highest degree. How is that done? The Apostle Paul teaches that when he says in Tit. 3, 5-6: ‘He gave his tender body unto death for them and sprinkled them with his holy blood and cleansed them through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.’ He instituted a washing; that washing is baptism, with which he washes her. More than this, he has given to her his Word; in that she believes and through her faith she becomes a bride.”

The Bridegroom is coming back. During this season of Advent, in the hymns, readings and preaching, the Church recalls His first coming as the Babe of Bethlehem and looks, with fervent longing, toward His second coming at the end of time.

But in my heart of hearts, I’m not feeling the joy. I’m weary of the world and tired in body and soul. The dress is not purchased, the invitations haven’t been mailed, the flowers are not ordered, and the banquet hall is not reserved. And when I go to church, I see a bunch of fellow sinners who are muddling through just like I am, clinging to their hope in Christ but coming face to face, each day, with their own faithlessness.

Thanks be to God that, although we are not ready, the Bridegroom is.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’” (Revelation 21:1-4)

is managing editor of Reporter, the official newspaper of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. She has written for a variety of publications, including The Federalist, Touchstone and The Lutheran Witness, and is a contributor to the book He Restores My Soul from Emmanuel Press. She has degrees in English and music and enjoys playing piano in her spare time.

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