Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 27, 2006 – Blessed Sacrament
The passage from the Epistle to the Ephesians that we heard as our second reading is not thought to be good news by some people today. It is the first part of what scholars call a “household code” in which several of the later Epistles provide norms for family life–relations between husband and wife, parents and children–and for the relation between masters and servants, or even slaves. Listening to them today, we find ourselves back in the hierarchically ordered, patriarchal family that prevailed not only in the ancient world of St. Paul’s time but long after also, and indeed still prevails in many parts of the world today.
This code includes the injunction that wives should be subject to their husbands, a rule that has so upset some lectors at Mass that they have refused to read it! But I don’t think we can pick and choose among the Scriptures and I don’t think we should pretend that such passages aren’t to be found in them. It’s similar to the case of slavery. St. Paul took for granted the institution of slavery and did not say a word about abolishing it. But he did urge masters to consider their slaves as their brother Christians, and that certainly would have been a novelty in the ancient world.
Similarly, what is striking about the passage that we heard is not the sentence about wives being subject to their husbands: that would have been old news at the time. The remarkable thing is, first, the sentence that immediately precedes: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” It is their common life in Christ that should govern their relations, and in Christ there is a reciprocity here, a degree of equality between husband and wife, a mutual submission, that should determine how they relate to one another.
The second striking thing is what Paul has to say to husbands. He doesn’t give them instructions about how to rule over their wives and children. “Husbands,” he says instead, “love your wives even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her.” There is a model for how husbands are to relate to their wives, and it has nothing to do with patriarchy. The model is not that of a patriarchal father toward his children, or of a king toward his subjects, or of a master toward his servants. Christ is the model, and Christ precisely in his surrender of his life for the sake of his bride, the Church. It is not authority and power, but self-forgetfulness and love that are to define the Christian husband. Surely no other household code for any other group of people at that time urged such a revolution in marital and family relations.
Before the marriage-rite was revised in the 1970s, a beautiful exhortation to the bride and groom was often read in place of a sermon. Its perfectly states what St. Paul was saying in our passage, and I would like to read it to recall it to those who were married under this exhortation and to bring home its truth to those who were not:
Exhortation before Marriage
My dear friends: You are about to enter upon a union which is most sacred and most serious. It is most sacred, because established by God himself. By it, he gave to man a share in the greatest work of creation, the work of the continuation of the human race. And in this way he sanctified human love and enabled man and woman to help each other live as children of God, by sharing a common life under his fatherly care.
Because God himself is thus its author, marriage is of its very nature a holy institution, requiring of those who enter into it a complete and unreserved giving of self. But Christ our Lord added to the holiness of marriage an even deeper meaning and a higher beauty. He referred to the love of marriage to describe his own love for his Church, that is, for the people of God whom he redeemed by his own blood. And so he gave to Christians a new vision of what married life ought to be, a life of self-sacrificing love like his own. It is for this reason that his apostle, St. Paul, clearly states that marriage is now and for all time to be considered a great mystery, intimately bound up with the supernatural union of Christ and the Church, which union is also to be its pattern.
This union then is most serious, because it will bind you together for life in a relationship so close and so intimate that it will profoundly influence your whole future. That future, with its hopes and disappointments, its successes and its failures, its pleasures and its pains, its joys and its sorrows, is hidden from your eyes. You know that these elements are mingled in every life and are to be expected in your own. And so, not knowing what is before you, you take each other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death.
It is a beautiful tribute to your undoubted faith in each other, that, recognizing their full import, you are nevertheless so willing and ready to pronounce them. And because these words involve such solemn obligations, it is most fitting that you rest the security of your wedded life upon the great principle of self-sacrifice. And so you begin your married life by the voluntary and complete surrender of your individual lives in the interest of that deeper and wider life which you are to have in common. Henceforth you belong entirely to each other; you will be one in mind, one in heart, and one in affections. And whatever sacrifices you may hereafter be required to make to preserve this common life, always make them generously. Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy; and perfect love can make it a joy. We are willing to give in proportion as we love. And when love is perfect, the sacrifice is complete. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, and the Son so loved us that he gave himself for our salvation. ‘Greater love than this no one has, that one lay down his life for his friends.’
No greater blessing can come to your married life than pure conjugal love, loyal and true to the end. May, then, this love with which you join your hands and hearts today, never fail, but grow deeper and stronger as the years go on. And if true love and the unselfish spirit of perfect sacrifice guide your every action, you can expect the greatest measure of earthly happiness that may be allotted to man in this vale of tears. The rest is in the hands of God. Nor will God be wanting to your needs; he will pledge you the lifelong support of his grace in the holy sacrament you are now going to receive.