The language that St. Paul uses in the reading from the letter to the Ephesians has sparked many a discussion in this day and age. Wives be subordinate to their husbands? That whole first section of this reading seems like an endorsement for a household pecking order. And that’s exactly what Paul was drawing on, the Household Code of antiquity. According to the code, which all Paul’s listeners knew, the husband was the master of the house. The wife was subservient to the husband, the children subservient to both and the slaves subservient to all. That’s not at all what Paul means. Actually, he meant something entirely different than what been the norm for centuries. Paul compares the marriage to the Church. Christ is the Groom, the Church…all of us…are the bride. The Church is subordinate to Christ, so Paul figures that the wife is subordinate to the husband. However, and this is where he breaks from the code, the husband must love his wife as Christ loves the Church. If you have been following the Gospel of John over the last few weeks, you know what that love is. Christ completely gave his Body and Blood for us. God became Man, took his place among us, and took all the pain and suffering for our sin. Because of this, he opens the way and invites us to join Him in eternal life. The love of the husband for the wife, therefore, should be an image of the love of Christ for his people. Complete, total, selfless, giving. “Subordinate” does not mean slavery. It does mean the unconditional giving of oneself to another. The Son gave himself completely to us out of love. We respond when we chose to give ourselves completely to Him in return. This is what Paul is talking about in the reading today. Marriage as a reflection of the Church, which is God’s presence among men.
This still does not make things easy. It is difficult to live this loving response to God. We see this in the Gospel today. Jesus has told his disciples if you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you will have eternal life. Some of his disciples are saying “this is hard, can we accept it?” Jesus responds that the “words I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life.” Still, they struggle with believing this. Some scripture scholars say that John was actually writing about some of the early Christians who struggled with the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. For many, to choose to believe is a difficult choice. All sorts of obstacles stemming from our weakness as humans tend to get in the way. We don’t understand the mystery, the sacrifice is really too difficult, this could be hard to do. John says that “many of his disciples returned to their former ways of life and no longer accompanied him.” We see that going on in our world today as well. So when Paul says that a man must be subordinate to his wife like Christ who gives himself for his Church, you can see how many men of his time would reject that thinking. Even today, there are undoubtedly see this as some sort of weakness, inconvenience or simply unrealistic. The same would hold true for wives who don’t understand that the subordination Paul talks of is a subordination of love. But those of us, and I can count myself in this group, who have lived a Christian marriage know what Paul means. We give ourselves to each other out of the pure love given to us in the graces of Matrimony. Husbands give themselves to their wives out of love, the love that Christ gives us as his people. And wives respond by loving in turn, giving of themselves for their husband, love for the loved. This is the way it works in our union with God. His graces, his love flow into us and the more filled we are with grace, the more we wish to give love to ourselves and others. It’s living the commandment Christ gave us, loving your neighbor as yourself.
This love goes on, often quietly, night and day in a marriage. It may be something big, more often than not it is the series of little sacrifices and acts that are sprinkled throughout the day. True acts of self=denying love, not like the phony-baloney romantic stuff on TV. In these acts we find God present in marriage and we respond to that presence with love ourselves. Paul says this is not just in marriage, but in the Church as a whole. It can be found in the faithful anywhere in any walk of life. People who choose to take God’s total giving, and respond by reflecting that love back to Him. This is the power, often quiet and often unseen, that moves through the Church, this power of grace. And the source of this power goes back to what Jesus has told us in John’s Gospel. Eat my flesh, drink my blood. You draw on that power of grace today in the Eucharist. You use it in your everyday life and are recharged when you return. You enter into the mystery of eternal life. It is a difficult choice to make, and it may not seem all that clear until you enter into it. But the more you do, you will find yourself like Peter. When Jesus asked him if he too wanted to leave, he replied “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Indeed, to whom shall we go?