“Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).
When the Second Person of the Trinity took on our frail human nature, he demonstrated divine humility. He stooped down into the muck and mire of human existence in order to raise us up and empower us to live a life in imitation of him. He did not come with thunder, lightening and a storm cloud. He came as a human embryo, fetus, infant, young child, adolescent and poor young man of Nazareth. This humility, this self-emptying of Christ, is something we are all called to participate in and imitate. This also goes for the married couple.
In the previous column we looked at how Jesus led us back to the beginning in order to understand that the man and the woman who have given the sacrament of matrimony to one another are called to imitate the life-giving, self-donating love of the Trinity.
St. Paul will help us understand that the married couple is also called to imitate the self-giving, life-giving love of the eternal Son of the Father for his bride, the Church.
St. Paul says: “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 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” (Ephesians 5:21-33).
All right, just take a minute and shake out your 21st century willies after hearing this first-century verse about wives being subordinate to their husbands. Now, calm down and let’s look at what exactly St. Paul is saying, not what we think he is saying.
First, we must notice verse 21, “Be subordinate to one another...,” before getting worked up about verse 22. Notice that it is also “out of reverence for Christ” that there is to be this mutual submission, not male dominance. Pope John Paul II tells us, “This relationship is a revelation and a realization in time of the mystery of salvation, of the election of love, hidden from eternity in God” (Wednesday audience, Aug. 18, 1982).
Second, we must consider all of the words of the above passage in order to fully grasp its meaning. There are two groups being referred to: husband and wife, and Christ and the church. The majority of verses are dealing with the husband, not the wife.
Notice that the husband is called to be like Christ and the wife is called to be like the church. Now if the husband is actually living out this calling to be Christ-like, then the verse about wives submitting themselves to their husbands is beautiful.
This passage specifies, for the husband, what he is called to in relation to his beloved. “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her…” The husband is called to lay down his life for his bride, giving completely of himself, being selfless, not selfish. What bride would not want to submit to such a husband?
Further, the word submission means to be under the mission. In particular the church/bride is meant follow the mission of Christ/bridegroom.
However, it is also true to say that Christ/bridegroom is meant to follow the mission of the church/bride. How can this be? The two are one body. They are two ways of saying the same thing. Christ and his church form one body through the washing of the members of the church with water, i.e. baptism, and through the consummation of that one flesh union, i.e. the Eucharist.
St. Paul has taught us that the husband and wife are to give completely of themselves to one another, holding nothing back.
The challenge St. Paul lays down is primarily to husbands: Imitate Christ! Love your wives as Christ loves the church! Die for her! Die for her is thousand different ways on a thousand different days!
He is also saying to wives: do not settle for anything less than a Christ-like husband.
St. Paul is proclaiming the holiness to which spouses are called in the vocation of matrimony. Let married couples heed his call.