The Feminine as Salvation: Becoming the Bride of Christ

In the Gospel of John women, more readily than men, come to faith and seem better positioned than men to confess and serve the Messiah. The longest conversation occurs with a woman, the most profound and earliest confession is that of a woman. The example of humble service, which Jesus is trying to teach his male disciples, is first grasped and enacted by a woman. The women, which John notes “Jesus loved,” outnumber the men. It is women who first come to the empty tomb and who first encounter the risen Jesus. It is a woman who is the first mass evangelist and it is a woman, his Mother, who first prompts the inauguration of Jesus miraculous ministry and who is witness to the end of that ministry. Some of his final words concern this woman and her care.

Men in John, typically, are hung up on law, on custom, on power, and ultimately it is men who kill Jesus due to these concerns. Nicodemus, the Pharisee and leader of the Jews, has a conversation that is set side by side with the woman of Samaria. She clearly has a thirst/desire problem, while he faces an insurmountable obstacle.  She understands she has an alienation problem, a woman or gender problem, a marriage/sex problem, as she is a woman of questionable character, and as a Samaritan woman she has an ethnic and religious problem. Yet, it is the very realization of her problematic status that gives her an advantage over Nicodemus, who seems unaware he has any problem.  Nicodemus, though, has a fear problem (he comes at night), a status problem (as a Pharisee and Jewish leader), but his main problem is an incapacity for thought – or new thought. His inability to follow Jesus argument and to thus re-imagine his world points to an attachment to the world he presently occupies. Jesus and the woman begin with the discussion of “sharing of a drinking vessel” which represents their intimate common ground. Thirst (desire) seems to represent the absence of life and this woman has known an abundance of desire. She has been to the marriage well five times and her desire (thirst) seems unquenchable. She easily follows Jesus’ employment of metaphor: natural water is replaced by the water that may well up within a human being, quenching desire and giving life. Drinking from one cup – overcoming division – is the union that quenches desire through abiding together. Enmity between men and women is overcome in a community of equality among them, ethnic divisions between Jews and Samaritans is bridged in a single community that worships God “in spirit and truth” (4:23). “New birth” is a metaphor which escapes Nicodemus’ mechanical, black and white, frame of reference. “Must I return to my mother’s womb,” he asks.  As is the case throughout John, the human problem (alienation) is resolved through imagery that is spousal – the one who has the bride is central (3:29;4:1ff); parental –  he who abides with the Father and in the Father’s household achieves the “born again” sort of love. The women of John are attuned to this familial love as salvation.

It is precisely familial concerns, as with the woman at the well, which serve as the occasion for key turns in Jesus’ teaching.  Jesus’ mother is concerned about running out of wine and this leads to the inauguration of his public ministry. Two women, Mary and Martha, have lost their brother Lazarus and this is the occasion of Jesus’ teaching and question concerning resurrection: “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?’” (Jn 11:25–26, NASB). This prompts Martha’s good confession: “I have had faith that you are the Anointed, the Son of God who is coming into the cosmos” (Jn 11:27, DBH). After Lazarus’ resurrection, Mary, by anointing Jesus with expensive nard and wiping his feet with her hair is, according to Jesus, preparing his body for death. Peter and the other Apostles do not understand Jesus’ washing of their feet in the very next scene of the Gospel, though Mary has just demonstrated it and connected it to self-sacrificial death. Mary seems to understand that everything is to be sacrificially poured out for love of Christ. Though Peter claims he will lay down his life for Jesus, he imagines self-sacrifice in masculine terms of battle and sword play (as is evidenced in the garden scene).

If one were to derive a masculine and feminine principle from John (a questionable undertaking), it might be that men are largely defined and constrained by their “larger” roles in society. We are told the occupation or political identity of all the Apostles – yet we know nothing of their children and next to nothing of spouses. The men in the Gospel are identified by their various roles – Pharisees, teachers of the law, rulers, fishermen, etc. The symbolic authority conveyed through the legal and social nexus is definitive of the masculine. The status of being, like Nicodemus and the Pharisees, keepers of the law and religious authorities is one that keeps, even the best of the Jewish leaders, secret, night-time followers of Jesus.  Jesus challenges this system of valuation, but those with the most to lose may be least likely to give it up. It is a mode of thought which cannot ascertain the value in being a servant, in sacrificing everything for the other – it is a mode of thought which obstructs salvation.  It is not that women are not also constrained by particular roles, yet, like the woman of Samaria, like Mary and Martha, and the women at the tomb, they seem to move about more freely – without fear, they offer ready confessions of belief and humble service.

Could it be that just as John deconstructs other binaries or oppositional dualities (light/dark, life/death, above/below), he may be deconstructing male/female duality so as to demonstrate how Jesus overcomes alienation and distance between people and between God and people? Gender and marriage serve elsewhere in Scripture as primary in depicting salvation. Jesus pictures the commencement of the messianic age with a wedding feast (Mt 22:1ff; Lk 14:16ff) and Revelation pictures the “wedding supper of the lamb” as new creation commenced (Rev 19:7ff).  Paul in Corinthians, Galatians, and Ephesians, connects new creation to the defeat of the original alienation between man and woman. Is John breaking down stereotypical roles, some of which are pagan derivatives (proto-Gnosticism) or Jewish perversions (patriarchy), so as to give us a “gendered” picture of salvation? Can we frame John’s deployment of gender within the wedding at Cana, which exegetes through the centuries have seen as a proleptic wedding feast of the lamb? Is the wedding feast of the lamb, with its reconciled difference between man (Christ) and woman (the bride or Church), John’s point of departure and the theological frame for understanding his portrayal of women?

Many have noted that the first seven days of the Gospel capture the entire movement of salvation history. As M. E. Boismard notes, the first seven-day period (echoing the seven days of creation and following the “in the beginning,” echoing Genesis) concludes with the wedding feast of Cana which has key elements of the final wedding feast (summing up the purpose and climax of new creation). The final wedding fulfills the first (failed?) marriage through the assembled Church (the work of the previous days as Jesus gathers the disciples) while at the same time reaching creations purpose in the seventh day. The movement of salvation history through the Old Covenant, here represented by John the Baptist, to the inauguration of the New as John baptizes Jesus, to the in-gathering of the world (represented by the calling of the twelve), culminates in discussion with his mother, at this wedding, of a final “hour” and glory which describe the passion and resurrection.

The role of Mary, or as Jesus calls her “woman” (the title “Eve” in Genesis), is to prompt Jesus to miraculously replace water, probably set aside for purification rituals, to provide new (messianic) wine.  We might draw simple lessons of Jesus rescuing a young couple from domestic embarrassment, but the similarities between this scene and the crucifixion scene (in both Mary is identified as “the mother of Jesus,” in both Jesus calls her “woman,” and in both is the question of the “hour”) indicate Golgotha and Cana are tied together. Is Mary the representative mother of the new humankind in that she becomes mother of the beloved disciple? Jesus announces to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” To the “beloved disciple” he says, “Behold, your mother!”  It is recorded, “From that hour the disciple took her into his own household” (Jn 19:26-27). Jesus’ natural family, at least in the synoptics, had not been accorded any special place and even in John Jesus, at Cana, seems to be rebuking his mother: “Woman, what does that have to do with us? My hour has not yet come” (2:4).  However, at the culmination of the Gospel, Jesus’ mother is now the mother of the Beloved Disciple and Jesus is now his brother. As Raymond Brown puts it, “A woman and a man stood at the foot of the Cross as models for Jesus’ ‘own,’ his true family of disciples.”

As I have indicated, this may be pushing the imagery as it exists in John, but it is consistent with Paul’s picture of salvation as revolving around gender. Paul pictures the transformation of humans into the bride of Christ as a move from the law bound (masculine) to suspension of the laws alienating effect (feminine).  Paul (Ro 7:1-6) finds something prior to and after the law which throws the law into a different perspective – the law is incomplete and the one who joins herself to Christ recognizes the limits of the law. The feminine Subject identifies with and accepts the incompleteness of the law and in doing so escapes its alienating effect. “So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God” (Ro 7:4). The transition to being joined to the body of Christ and bearing fruit (the feminine Bride of Christ) renders the law inoperative (κατήργηται, in v. 2).  It is not that the law is “abolished” (as κατήργηται is sometimes translated), as it still applies, but the manner in which it applies is as a marker its own suspended force.  The word Paul employs and for which he develops his own technical meaning, is the perfect passive indicative of καταργεω, “to make void.” As A. T. Robertson describes Paul’s illustration, the husband (who comes to occupy the feminine) stands for a void created by and in the law.  It is not that the void stands outside of the law, rather it is a space created within the law’s own taking place.  The law’s capacity for suspension and application marks the contours, the “space” or void, from which the law proceeds.  In the case of a king or dictator who institutes the laws and whose very word is the law, his own relationship to the law is marked by the power of suspension; the place from which the law originates is marked by its disapplication. One might conclude John is narrating this same shift.

This is most poignantly illustrated in John 8:6-8, which describes Jesus’ acts of writing with the vocabulary that Exodus 32.15 employs to describe God’s authorship of the Decalogue. The one who embodies the law frees an adulteress from the condemnation of those who would deploy the law against her. She is enjoined to sin no more and stands free of condemnation while her accusers depart under the weight of the law Jesus has levied against them. Her encounter with Jesus has literally suspended the law and saved her life. All who are joined to Christ as his bride are freed from the weight of the law through his love which embodies and surpasses the law.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.