Last week marked Ash Wednesday – the beginning of 40 days of fasting for many Christians. For too long, a foolish blend of rebellion, resentment, and ignorance led me to be weary of fasting during the holiday season. It always seemed to me that too many people observed Lent based on tradition or the desire to seem pious, rather than a genuine contrite spirit. While this still may be the case, a recent study into Jesus’s discussion of the topic has altered how I view the custom.
In Luke 5, Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus why he and his disciples do not fast like John the Baptist. Jesus responded that wedding guests do not fast while the bride groom is with them, but wait until he has left. I’ve read this passage countless times, and recognized that here Jesus refers to himself as the bride groom, a common motif in the Hebrew Scriptures for a description of God (a bold claim in itself). But being convicted that I too often strip the Scriptures of their cultural context, I decided I needed to uncover what exactly went on at a Hebrew wedding – what was Jesus referring to?
The first step in the Hebrew marriage was the father of the groom choosing a bride for his son, though the bride would ideally consent. In Genesis, consider that Abraham (via his servant) sought Rebekah who consented to marry Isaac. At this point, the bride and groom would cleanse themselves in a symbolic gesture of purifying themselves for one another. Note how this narrative reflects the relationship between Christ and his bride, the Church. The Father chose Israel out of the nations to be his special possession (Deut 32:8-9) and each person must decide if he will enter into a relationship with Jesus. Just as the bride and groom clean themselves, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River and so too his followers are baptized in a public declaration of their intent to commit themselves to Christ.
Once the parties have consented, the bride price is paid and a covenant (a blend between contract and relationship) is established and celebrated with a cup of wine. At this point, a legal divorce is required to break the relationship between the betrothed. The Gospel accounts note Joseph planned to divorce Mary though they were not yet married. It is no coincidence that when Paul warns against sexual immorality, he notes that Christ’s followers have been bought with a price – our bride price and celebratory cup are one in the same, his blood (1 Cor 6:19-20).
The groom then departs to prepare a home for his new bride, as Christ promised he was doing: “If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also”(John 14:3). The father of the groom determined when his son had prepared an adequate home for his new family, and so he determined when the marriage ceremony would begin – not the groom. Jesus uses this tradition to describe his second coming, a symbolic time set forth by the Father unknown to him (Matthew 24:32-36).
As the groom could return at any moment, the bridesmaids would traditionally keep a lookout, symbolically lighting lamps in the bride’s home (see Matthew 25’s parable of the ten virgins for a play on this custom).
The final step is of the marriage is referred to as the ‘nissuin,’ meaning ‘to take,’ derived from word meaning to lift up or carry (you may have seen how the bride and groom are lifted up a ceremony today). When the father of the groom declared the time for the ceremony had arrived, the friend of the groom (what we might refer to as the best man) went ahead of the groom to announce his appearance. John the Baptist uses this imagery in John 3: 28-30: I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.
Trumpets are blown to mark the commencement of the marriage ceremony, another image used in Paul’s writings and Revelation to describe Christ’s return for his bride (1 Thes 4:16, Rev 8-11). The bride and groom, dressed in a clean linen as described in Ephesians 5, are now ready to be married. At last, the two enjoy a second cup of wine during their ceremony, and celebrate with the wedding feast, similar to that described as the end of this time in Revelation 19:6-9:
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
And the angel said to me, Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb
I believe it is this final cup, the one the bride and groom enjoy together on their wedding day, that Jesus has withheld for himself in a fast until he is united to his bride (Matthew 26:29).
I am not Jewish, nor will I pretend to have done extensive research on first century Hebrew wedding customs, but uncovering what I did has given me a few ideas. First, this reaffirmed that I am terribly ignorant of the Jewish roots of my faith, which not only permits asserting information that is not in the text (such as a Rapture rather than a ‘taking up’), but also blinds me from the beauty that is there. Second, the cup that Christ abstains from is tied not only to the marriage ceremony, but other motifs like the Passover, cup of wrath, Day of Atonement and more. The more I study the Scripture, the more I see it is like a diamond, shinning brilliantly in one direction but if turned, yields a new portrait of radiance.
Finally, the longing in each person is to be known and loved, to be longed for and told you are worth pursuit and sacrifice. That is precisely what Jesus did on the cross and does while he awaits his wedding. As a child of my culture, I incorrectly saw Lent as a time of denying oneself out duty. But in truth, for those betrothed to Christ, it is instead holding out in joyful anticipation of something greater yet to come. What better way to prepare for Easter?