Over the past few days, the daily Mass readings have come from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Today’s reading is from the dreaded chapter 5.
“Wives be submissive to your husbands!” – the third-rail of scripture from the pulpit. It’s been cleaned up a bit to make it less “offensive”, so the current translation says, “Wives be subordinate to your husbands.” To those who object, I daresay the text is no less palatable. I’m sure you can imagine the replies…“The Church hates women!” Blah! Blah! Blah! If only women knew how much the Church upholds thier dignity.
Just once, I’d like to hear the full text of Ephesians 5 proclaimed and explained at Sunday Mass. Every time I see it in the missal, I pray, “O, Lord, please let this be the time we’re taught your true meaning.” But, no, [optional text in brackets] is omitted.
Let’s pull it apart, shall we?
They key offense is the word submissive. Our culture understands submissive to mean weak, beholding, fearful, and cowering. Is this what St. Paul really meant?
I think one of the best explanations of this passage comes from Christopher West’s book Theology of the Body for Teens: Discovering God’s Plan for Love and Life. This excerpt below is from pages 116-117. (The full text of today’s reading is at the end of this post.)
In verse 21, before he speaks to wives, St. Paul speaks of mutual submission of husbands and wives “out of reverence for Christ.” A moment later, he puts the pressure on the man, saying, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Eph 5:25) The question we must ask is: How did Christ love the Church? The clear answer within the text is that He “gave himself up for her.” He died for her. Christ gave all that He had for the Church, loving her and serving her until the very end. He symbolized this offering of Himself most concretely in the gift of His naked body upon the cross, as the bridegroom who gives Himself totally to His bride.
The word “submission” can be broken down like this: sub means “under” and mission refers to a special assignment or purpose. In this case, the husband’s mission is to love his wife as Christ loved the Church – even to the point of death. If husbands were living out this mission of love everywhere, would women have any problem placing themselves “under” this mission? What wives wouldn’t want their husband to love them and serve them in a radical way? What girl doesn’t dream about a brave young man who will honor her and be willing to risk his own life to love her? Pope John Paul II points out that the woman’s submission to her husband, if understood in the context of the whole passage, “signifies above all the ‘experiencing of love’”.
On the other hand, if women loved and served their husbands the way the Church gives herself to Christ, would men have any complaints about their wives? Marriage is an amazing opportunity for spouses to image agape love (God’s unconditional love) for each other through mutual respect and total self-donation. Throughout the sacrament, the body is the means and visible sign of this love.
Don’t we all just want to be deeply loved and cherished simply for who we are? This is the love Paul talks about for both wives and husbands.
We need to be ambassadors of this message – by how we live and love in our marriages, by what we teach our children and those entrusted to us for religious instruction, by how we share it with adults in our lives. It is a message the world needs to hear.
St. Paul, pray for us! Anne
Brothers and sisters:
Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.
For the husband is head of his wife
just as Christ is head of the Church,
he himself the savior of the Body.
As the Church is subordinate to Christ,
so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.Husbands, love your wives,
even as Christ loved the Church
and handed himself over for her to sanctify her,
cleansing her by the bath of water with the word,
that he might present to himself the Church in splendor,
without spot or wrinkle or any such thing,
that she might be holy and without blemish.So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.
He who loves his wife loves himself.
For no one hates his own flesh
but rather nourishes and cherishes it,
even as Christ does the Church,
because we are members of his Body.
For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother
and be joined to his wife,
and the two shall become one flesh.
This is a great mystery,
but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church.
In any case, each one of you should love his wife as himself,
and the wife should respect her husband.