Fr. Meier then asks: "Can the substance, if not the exact wording, of the tradition in v 18bcd and v 19a be traced back to an actual exchange in the life of the historical Jesus?" Based on a painstaking analysis he concludes, "Despite the lack of multiple attestation of the sources for this dialogue, a number of criteria argue strongly for the tradition's authenticity." (see Marginal Jew, Vol II, p. 446ff.)
You may review Fr. Meier's argument for yourself. The point here is that in the context of the discussion about fasting, Jesus referred to himself as the bridegroom. This self-identification has stunning implications. In the first place it answers the scribes' question in last Sunday's gospel. Remember that when Jesus told the paralytic his sins were forgiven, they asked, "Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?" (Mk 2:7)
We can miss the seriousness of the scribes' question thinking they were just a bunch of uptight guys who didn't like the fact Jesus was so forgiving. But that is not the point. Jesus did not just forgive personal offenses against himself; he forgave sins. It would be like you coming to me distraught because someone broke into your house and stole your VCR - and I say, "please calm down; I forgive the thief!" Such words would at least puzzle, more probably make you angry, maybe as furious as the scribes were with Jesus.
In my case your anger would be justified. Who am I to go around forgiving offenses committed against someone else? But Jesus did exactly that. He forgave men's sins. Today we get a glimpse of why Jesus could do what otherwise would amount to blasphemy. He tells us he is the bridegroom - in whose presence fasting ceases.
Today's first reading gives the background for the designation bridegroom:
The spouse of Israel is Jehovah, Yahweh, the Lord himself. When Jesus called himself the bridegroom, it was no small claim.
It took the disciples (and the early Church) some time to realize the precise import of Jesus' words and actions, but he knew who he was. These early episodes of his public ministry show Jesus revealing his inner reality. After publicly forgiving the paralytic's sins, he says that, as the bridegroom, he has full rights to call off the fast. Only the headmaster can declare a holiday. Jesus exhibited an awesome authority.
C.S. Lewis pointed out that, faced with Jesus, we have only three choices. We can dismiss him as a lunatic. We can hate him as a liar. Or we can worship him as Lord. What we cannot do is patronize him by saying, "Oh, yes, Jesus was a good man, a wise moral teacher, but not God." Jesus has removed that option. He never meant us to have that way out. The choice is stark - and it calls for a personal decision. Aut Deus aut homo malus. Either God or an evil man. Who do you say Jesus is? For me the answer is clear. I hope it is for you.
In revealing himself as the bridegroom, Jesus makes a sweeping claim. Bishop Sheen said that the entire Bible can be summed up as the divine nuptials. In the opening chapters of Genesis God creates our first parents and tells them that by their bodily union they become one flesh, one being. In the last chapters of Revelation we read about the great marriage feast in heaven when the Lamb (Jesus) will take his bride (the Church) forever. Everything in between describes God forming a people which would be his own forever. Jesus knew where he had come from and why he took on our human flesh.
I want to conclude with two words of warning. First about those who over-spiritualize our relation with God. In doing so they look down on external rites (sacraments) and sometimes even say it does not matter what we do with our bodies as long as our "spirit" is well. I have referred to these people in other homilies as New Manicheans. They package their message in such a soothing way it is sometimes difficult to see how they subvert Christian faith. One of their characteristics is to belittle "gender differences" and even go so far as to say it does not matter that Jesus is male. But Jesus revealed himself as the bridegroom - the opposite would involve a totally different religion. His masculinity was not by chance.
A second warning: If Jesus is the bridegroom, the image of the people as bride involves an inner youthfulness. Today's readings warn against getting "old" in our hearts. Hosea calls Israel the Lord's bride and asks her to return to "the days of her youth." Jesus says something similar when he tells us to become "new wineskins." One of the things I hate to hear, something which tightens my abdomen, is when a person says that they used to think a certain way, but now that they are older - and more "realistic" - they have put such foolishness aside.* I want to respond, "maybe you should recapture some of your youth, your idealism." Once when a dear friend was acting in a way I thought showed a stingy heart, I said to him, "please, don't become an old f---!" I'll let you fill in the blanks. I admit I've said the same thing to myself when I have held back from being generous to someone. Maybe we need to return to earlier days when that bride was so beautiful, so radiant, so in love with the Bridegroom.
*Current example: The Development of Al Gore from pro-life representative to pro-choice presidential candidate
New Manicheism as a Perversion of Creation
Letter to Parishioners (Feb. 20, 2000)