21st Sunday of ordinary Time
“This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Jn. 6:60
This response of the crowd to the words of Jesus concerning the Eucharist should not surprise us. The words of Jesus concerning the Eucharist, the eating of his flesh and blood, are indeed something shocking to the normal mind. Even the apostles could be expected to react with shock at the words of their master. But they have the advantage of faith, belief that Jesus is no ordinary rabbi but truly the divine master whose teaching is truly life-giving, as Peter confesses at the end of this gospel: “you have the words of eternal life.”
The apostles believe in Jesus, “We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God. As the Holy One of God, Jesus possesses divine power and divine wisdom. He possesses words of such power and wisdom that they bring eternal life to those who believe. Note that Peter does not claim to understand these words that the crowd finds hard to accept, but faith opens his human mind to the deeper meaning of this teaching, and the apostles will come to believe that Jesus truly gives himself to us in a mysterious way, body and soul, blood and divinity in this holy Sacrament so that we may possess his eternal life.
However, we could as easily apply the response of the crowd – “This saying is hard; who can accept it?– to the teaching of St. Paul in today’s second reading which strikes many today as out of tune with a supposedly more enlightened understanding of the relationship between man and wife. These words of Paul may seem no less shocking today than the words about the Eucharist have been shocking to every age:
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 … As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything. (Eph 5:22ff.)
So how are we to understand these words of St. Paul, which are as much the Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, as are the words of St. John concerning the Eucharist. Some scriptural commentators today try to explain them away as simply reflecting the cultural values of an ancient society that are no longer valid by contemporary standards. But really that could be said of just about anything in the Bible. Once you begin to pick and choose what is culturally determined rather than divine revelation, you are on very shaky ground for the Christian faith.
Of course, that is not to say that there are no culturally limited things in the Bible, for even St. Paul seems to recognize this fact when he talks
about certain customs that are present in his churches. But when it comes to marriage – and spousal duties – which is a sacrament of the New Covenant, and a sacrament that is closely connected with the relationship between Christ and the church, and indeed with the Eucharist itself, one needs to be very careful not to dismiss what in fact is a part of divine revelation, divine truth which holds true in every age and is not conditioned by human culture or historical periods. So what can we say about the true interpretation of these words of Paul?
First, there is no question here of a denial of the true equality between man and woman in Christian marriage and in the Church. Paul himself asserts that true notion of equality in a number of places in his letters. Moreover, in this passage the command for wives to be subject to their husbands is not based upon any natural inequality such as would be found in the surrounding pagan peoples, including the philosophers of the Greek world. The basis of this order between husband and wife is not based on nature taken in isolation, but on the way the Church as a whole relates to Christ and the truth that marriage is a true sacrament of that greater marriage that exists between God and man in Christ and specifically between Christ and the Church.
So, the wife is not subject to the husband because she is any way naturally inferior to him, no more than Mary was inferior to Joseph, but simply because marriage itself is, in its perfect state, intended by God to be a public witness to and participation in the greater mystery of salvation that actually takes place within the mystical marriage and union between Christ and the Church.
The Sacrament of Matrimony testifies to the mystery of salvation, and in how it embraces each of us; being male or female simply does not matter. The Church is truly Christ’s mystical bride and his mystical body. Just as husband and wife become one flesh, one body, in the union of marriage, so also the Church has become one flesh with Christ and draws her life from Him. Thus there is a Eucharistic overtone that connects the sacrament of matrimony with the mystical marriage between Christ and the church. For when we receive the Eucharist, we individually and collectively become one flesh with Christ and draw from him eternal life.
In short, the great visible sign and witness to the truth that Christ and the Church have become one flesh through his sacrificial death on the cross is the Sacrament of Matrimony. Christian husbands and wives, who live their marriage according to the model of Christ and the Church, participate in a wonderful way in that same mystery of Christ’s perfect saving communion of life and love with His Church, and they do this through their own marriage, and through their common reception of the Eucharist. Their marriage becomes a visible sign testifying to the truth that Christ and His Church are forever one flesh.
Looking at Christian marriage from this perspective, there can be no question of superiority or inferiority of the human spouses. Indeed, we can perhaps apply the words of St. Paul at the beginning of that passage, “ Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” to the Christian marriage, for husbands, are to imitate Christ in their headship: “love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her. Husbands becomes subject to their wives by their love, handing themselves over to their wives in the vows of marriage and in the living out of those vows of love on a daily basis. They are to live for their wives, by dying to themselves and cherishing their spouses as their own flash. This is what Jesus did when he handed himself over on the cross. In this way, the authority that comes with the husband’s headship in Christ cannot be a form of “lording it over” the bride, for that authority must be subjected to the love of the spouse.
Jesus himself referred to this Christian transformation of authority and responsibility by the law of love. Recall how he said to his Apostles who were to be the heads of their local churches, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” When it comes to the authority of the Church leader or Christian husband, both of whom must act in imitation of Christ’s headship, such headship becomes a form of service, not a form of “lording it over” the bride who is one flesh with them. That perverted form of headship is simply incompatible with the sacramental relationship between Christian marriage and the mystery of Christ. The only authority worthy of any Christian is the authority that is subjected to love. So, here is the true vision of married life for the Christian:
“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.”
This indeed, as Paul says at the end is a great mystery, I speak in reference to Christ and the church. It is a mystery of Christ’s saving action, his life giving union with the Church, and thus a mystery connected to the Holy Eucharist. It is a mystery of love and only people of faith and love can ever hope to understand its beauty. When this mystery shapes Marriage and Church leadership, then and only then does love perfect nature.