--C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (p. 58)
So yesterday, Catholic preachers everywhere faced a conundrum regarding which reading on which to preach. There were three particularly juicy options, and the Gospel was the trump card narrative of the final passage of the Bread of Life discourses and Peter's stunning proclamation: "We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God." Not an easy choice. The brave among them even dared to weave all three of them together.
The second reading, from the letter of Paul to the Ephesians, is what our deacon called an elbow-nudging passage. For it featured Paul's oft-mocked, quoted, and misappllied command for wives to be subordinate to their husbands.
And our deacon is correct in his assessment of how this reading touches the human race. It is all too common for listeners to focus only on the first part of the passage and think: "haha! Gotcha! Guess what! Females are not supposed to be equal to men!" And, when Paul begins to address men, the other half of the population thinks: "haha! men! things don't look so hot for you either!"
But this is precisely the attitude which Paul is correcting in us.
This is not a "Gotcha" passage, but an injunction to a cease-fire in the constant battle to be king of the hill.
So this delightfully challenging passage begins with Paul's command to all the married Ephesians (and perhaps all the single Ephesians, too) "Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ." (Ephesians 5:21). This is the really radical statement.
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.
There's really nothing new here. I wonder if any of the Ephesian housewives were perturbed or otherwise shocked by it. For although there is something greater here than just "wives! Do everything your husband tells you to do!" the foot hasn't yet dropped. Paul has certainly re-contextualized the dynamic of marriage, but he hasn't yet hit us with his best shot (as it were). So here comes what I think was the real bombshell, and turns this whole text into something really radical:
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.
And then Paul drops the mic/his quill. [ed. note: did he even write with quills? Google first century Palestine writing instruments]
Because this is really where Christianity is going wildly off script, in terms of prevailing cultural narratives of their time (and perhaps all times). Here, Paul is calling men to view their wives as their equals (and perhaps this is me reading this through a gloss of 21st century new feminism, and yet the beauty of this text is that it seems to support that reading): "He who loves his wife loves himself." "So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies." Certainly there is nothing here in this passage that denotes any member of this marriage as a lesser status than the other partner.
One part of the passage that I love is the portion of the passage where Paul writes:
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.
The real splendor of the bridegroom is his own pursuit of sanctity. And through this pursuit, he also facilitates the holiness and purity of his spouse. Just as Christ, through His own act of goodness--His pure sacrifice of love--sanctified the Church, His bride. For, really, the heart of this passage is the mysterious call to men to "love their wives as Christ has loved the church." Here, Paul brings the heart of the Christian message--to take up one's cross, to lay down one's life in imitation of Christ--into the heart of marriage. And this is a mutual mission: marriage is not the subordination of one person's desires for the sake of the other, but an enterprise of mutual self-gift.
Paul's injunction to married couples is an injunction to a new sort of love. Paul is calling married people to something deeper than just a contract of control. They enter into a contract of love, of radical self-sacrifice to one another, in imitation of Christ's paschal sacrifice for His people. The reason Paul focuses so deeply on the role of men, I believe, is because this is a radical departure from the prevailing cultural script of male dominance.
Perhaps, then, if the man is the natural leader of the household (due to whatever reasons you want to have to support that statement), then he is a leader in self-sacrifice. Christians are not messing around with this command to servant leadership. To be first means to be last. And this is stated in no uncertain terms.
For, the whole point of Christianity is that it tells us our deepest desire--where we will find our deepest joy--is not through control, but through self-gift. Often, because of our own fallen natures, we grasp at power over others, and dominion over what little corner of the world we can exert influence over. Power is tempting. It is pleasant to be in control, and it is pleasurable to get to call the shots, and make people do what you want them to do.
But this is not the way of Christianity. Christianity calls each of us to lay down our lives in love for one another. In this passage, Paul is examining how intimately and particularly this call is seen in something as mundane as marriage. Marriage is not a lofty vocation: it has and always been the occupation of the many. It is common. It is messy. It is filled with taxes and laundry and fixing the siding of the house and arguing and quiet dinners of burnt bread. It has no vestal purity about it. To be a priest, to be a consecrated virgin has always been a revered business, because it means to be set apart, to be above the common people. But marriage is right, dab, smack in the middle of the messy universe. Married couples do not get to be locked up in a pristine temple, removed from all the hum-drum bustle of the world and crying babies. They are charged with the unholy task of making those crying babies.
But, in this passage, Paul is proves that this common vocation of the uneducated masses is actually a beautiful school of Christian charity. In a cultural milieu that emphasized (as most cultures have throughout history) that might makes right, and the man gets to dominate the household because he is the most powerful, and a man's home is his castle blah blah blah, Paul's injunction for a man to love his bride with the self-sacrificing love of Christ for the Church was quite counter-cultural. And it is still certainly very counter-cultural.
Despite our self-congratulatory insistence that we have achieved some sort of equality between the sexes, and certainly, our Western democracy allows women a greater autonomy than previous societies (59 days until Suffragette the movie hits theatres), we really, spiritually, are pretty much wrestling with the same demons our ancestors did. There is that fundamental division between us (the "sword between the sexes" that C.S. Lewis writes of) that locks us in an eternal power struggle between the sexes. All human beings are constantly wrestling with their own instinct to be in control. And the Christian vocation is the call to continually surrender our insatiable need to be in control. We must surrender it ultimately to God. And so we surrender it to our neighbor--to our spouse, our superior, our boss, our student, our sister--as a practical living-out of our surrendering of our lives to the Lord.
If this passage of Ephesians is challenging to us, it certainly ought to be. Paul goes straight for the jugular, and attacks the most fundamental flaw in our human nature: the need to grasp for power. We do not like to serve. We like to rule. It is hard for me to listen to this passage and hear the word "subordinate," because I am a human being and the siren song of "I will not serve" is always playing in the background, a harsh, discordant clash to the sweet invitation to "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to your word."
For these are the questions this passage poses us: are we willing to gain true freedom by relinquishing this grasping, greedy hunger for power? Are we willing to follow Christ, even to the point of following our spouse? Are we willing to lay down the sword between us, and to take up the cross and follow after Christ?