22 August 2021

Homily - On the subordinance of marriage

 The Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

 Dear brothers and sisters,

We have heard for the past several weeks of Jesus’ desire to give himself completely for us, to the point of offering himself on the Cross for our salvation and of giving himself to us as our true food and drink (cf. John 6:1-69). Today, he asks us, “Does this shock you” (John 6:61)?

No doubt there are many today who are indeed shocked at so great a love. In an age of ever-increasing self-absorption and of strident, independent individualism, so self-less a love seems unfathomable. Yet this love is true; it is real. Jesus did - and does - love us with a love greater than we can comprehend. Yet some doubt such a love and others do not desire to be loved so intimately. At what point in this spectrum do we fall? Today, many people’s ability to accept the love of Jesus is related to their upbringing, to the manner in which they received love in their families.

Saint Paul realized this profound relationship between marriage and God’s own love. This is why he said, “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:32). The portion of his letter to the Ephesians which we have just heard finds little support in society today. For this reason, many marriages have failed because spouses have not rooted their love for each other in the love of Jesus Christ; they have not measured their love according to God’s way of loving.

We strive for independence because of our fallen and sinful condition and long for what we call freedom, but which – in reality - is really mere license. When we attain what we seek we do not find ourselves, but rather slaves to our own desires and passions. Saint Paul shows us the way out of this vicious cycle of self-enslavement and opens for us the path to authentic freedom.

“Follow the way of love,” he says earlier in the same letter, “even as Christ loved you. He gave himself for us” (Ephesians 5:2). Who would say that Jesus was not free? Indeed, he was – and is - freer than any one of us has ever been. It is true that he was obedient to the Father even to the point of death, but it is equally true that he freely chose obedience. His was the obedience not of enslavement, but of love; it is this obedience of love that Saint Paul urges wives to live when he says, “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22).

Before we grow angry with Saint Paul and think him a bigot, we must remember what he writes just before this so-called controversial statement: “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ,” words he addresses to everyone (Ephesians5:21). As Christ loved us, so we are to love one another. Because wives are to love their husbands as they would love Christ, they should be subordinate to them “because the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of his body the church” (Ephesians 5:22).

Before saying anything further, we must consider what it means to be “subordinate” to someone.

The Greek verb is hypotasso, which means literally ‘to place or arrange under.’ Here it occurs in the middle voice (hypotassomai) with the meaning ‘to place oneself under,’ or more simply, ‘submit oneself to’ or ‘defer to.’ It is clear from the context that voluntary subordination is intended, like the other voluntary expression of Spirit-filled life mentioned [by Paul].[1]

This voluntary act of deferring to one another is placed by Saint Paul in the context of “reverence for Christ.”

The truly unusual nature of this instruction is that Paul tells his readers to submit themselves to one another, still addressing all the members of the community. At first this seems contradictory. How can two individuals place themselves ‘under’ each other? … The meaning of this unusual instruction becomes clearer in the light of similar texts that teach about relationships in the church… Reciprocal humility and love determine even the relationship that entail authority… Undoubtedly, behind this teaching stands Jesus’ own teaching about leadership as service (Luke22:25-27), which was demonstrated and explained when he washed the feet of his disciples (John 13:13-15), foreshadowing his humbling himself for our sake on the cross.[2]

Here we see clearly that “God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love.” [3]

The head of the body always looks to the good of the body, to its health, safety, and satisfaction. This is how Christ cares for his Bride, the Church; this is how husbands are to care for their wives. What is more, Saint Paul says, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her” (Ephesians 5:25). Every husband, then, must be filled with so selfless a love for his wife that he is ready and willing to lay down even his very life for her. “While on rare occasions dying for one’s wife may be literally necessary, [Paul] means it in the everyday sense of husbands dying to self by prioritizing their wives’ needs and wants before their own. Essentially, Paul is saying, ‘Husbands, seek the good of your wives regardless of the cost to you.”[4] If a husband loves his wife in this way, there is no difficulty in deferring to him. Again, we see clearly that God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love.

Certainly, to live in this way is no simple task and for this reason, in his goodness, Christ the Lord has raised marriage to the dignity of a Sacrament and has bestowed his grace upon it to enable husbands and wives to live in such a way that the love of Christ for the Church is reflected in their marriage.

Christ’s grace is not an external addition to human nature, it does not do violence to men and women but sets them free and restores them, precisely by raising them above their own limitations. And just as the Incarnation of the Son of God reveals its true meaning in the Cross, so genuine human love is self-giving and cannot exist if it seeks to detach itself from the Cross.[5]

We can say, then, that the love of husband and wife is in some way a Eucharistic love, a love that must imitate the selfless and self-giving love of Jesus Christ. Husbands and wives must give themselves to each other completely, just as Jesus gives himself completely for us. When a husband cares more about himself than his wife, a marriage begins to fail. When a wife cares more about herself than her husband, a marriage begins to fail. This, too, is a hard saying and one largely rejected by our society, to great harm for all.

It is only by following the way of love, it is only by deferring to one another out of reverence for Christ, that we find true freedom; it is only by imitating the self-giving love of Jesus that we find everything we seek in life. May the Lord, then, lead us deeper and deeper into the mystery of his love until our love perfectly reflects his own, until the measure of our love is the measure of his love. Amen.

[1] Peter S. Williamson, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: Ephesians (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2009), 155-156.

[2] Ibid., 156-157.

[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 11.

[4] Peter S. Williamson, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: Ephesians, 166.

[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Address to Participants in the Diocesan Convention of Rome, 6 June 2005.

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