Blog Template Theology of the Body: Indulgences on the Road: The Nuptial Church and the Ardent Christ

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Indulgences on the Road: The Nuptial Church and the Ardent Christ

One of the central tenets of the doctrine of indulgences which waits to be developed is the authority of the Church as the Bride of Christ. While Martin Luther's 95 Theses accepted the doctrine of indulgences in a qualified sense, his most direct attack suggested that the nuptial Church, having been espoused to Christ, did not really share in His authority in a such a way as to assist her children and His. In other words, Luther's attack on the practices of indulgences presumed to question the Biblical revelation of the Church's espousals to her Lord.

In response, the papal Bull Exsurge Domine of Leo X did not hesitate to describe Luther as the fiesty schismatic that he was, in the vivid sense of a little fox who had, on the description of the Song of Songs, entered the Bridegroom's enclosed vineyard and spoiled the vines:

"Arise, O Lord, and judge your own cause. Remember your reproaches to those who are filled with foolishness all through the day. Listen to our prayers, for foxes have arisen seeking to destroy the vineyard whose winepress you alone have trod. When you were about to ascend to your Father, you committed the care, rule, and administration of the vineyard, an image of the triumphant church, to Peter, as the head and your vicar and his successors...Give heed to the cause of the holy Roman Church, mother of all churches and teacher of the faith, whom you by the order of God, have consecrated by your blood...We beseech you also, Paul, to arise. It was you that enlightened and illuminated the Church by your doctrine and by a martyrdom like Peter's. For now a new Porphyry rises who, as the old once wrongfully assailed the holy apostles, now assails the holy pontiffs, our predecessors."

Pope Leo's reference to Luther as the New Porphyri hearkens back to St. Augustine's earlier accusations against the Gnostic who wished to posit God's total separation and attenuation from the creature by denying Christ's Incarnation:

For, even when His angels hear us, it is He Himself who hears us in them, as in His true temple not made with hands, as in those men who are His saints; and His answers, though accomplished in time, have been arranged by His eternal appointment ...though Moses conversed with God, yet he said, “If I have found grace in Your sight, show me Yourself, that I may see and know You.” (Exodus 33:13)...But Porphyry, being under the dominion of these envious powers, whose influence he was at once ashamed of and afraid to throw off, refused to recognize that Christ is the Principle by whose incarnation we are purified. Indeed he despised Him, because of the flesh itself which He assumed, that He might offer a sacrifice for our purification—a great mystery, unintelligible to Porphyry's pride, which that true and benignant Redeemer brought low by His humility, manifesting Himself to mortals by the mortality which He assumed.” (City of God X.12, 13, 24)

Against the slurs of all the historical Porphyris, and their recommendation of a purely juridical, attenuated relationship of the creature to God, the Catholic Church has always persisted in her quiet self-understanding of what it means to be nuptially one with her Lord by His incarnation and Passion, since she has been born from His side on the Cross, and joined to Him as though they were veritably become one flesh. And it is from this perspective that we can recognize that contrary to the inane claims of secular historians who posit the medieval period as one of ignorance and fear, we find instead an era which celebrates the most serious kind of intimacy.

There are two wonderful exhibits on display at Cluny which demonstrate this claim. The first, at bottom, is the famous display of the 16th century wool and silk tapestry cycle from Flanders, which is known as "The Lady with the Unicorn." Here, Christ is represented by the unicorn, (mythically celebrated as the pure being who can only be caught by a virgin), who, having pursued the lady who represents the Church, finally arrives at her tent; the final scene depicts her renouncing and unloading her jewels into a waiting treasure chest, under the words "to my sole desire." The sense of a nuptial gift is unmistakable.

The second example is quieter, tucked away in a series of 14th century sculptures retrieved from a small church in France. At first, what you see is another graceful image of the Virgin Mother, and her Child, for whom she renounced all things. But on closer inspection, you grasp the full meaning of God's joining Himself to us from her womb; He seems to be struggling to place a wedding ring on her finger.