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commentators today try to explain them away as simply reflecting the cultural values of an ancient society that are no longer valid by contemporary standards.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 specific passage, the command for wives to be subject to their husbands is not based upon any natural inequality such as would be asserted in the surrounding pagan peoples, including the philosophers of the Greek world. The basis of this specific, sacramental order between husband and wife is not based on nature taken in isolation, but precisely on the way that the Church as a whole relates to Christ, in a nuptial relationship. Thus the truth is that Christian matrimony is a true sacrament of that greater marriage that exists between God and man in Jesus Christ and more specifically between Christ and His Church, which is his Bride.
So, for Paul, 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, in its most exalted state, is intended by God to be a participation in the great mystery of salvation that actually takes place within a mystical marriage and nuptial union between Christ and the Church.
The Sacrament of Matrimony thus testifies to the mystery of salvation, and how The Lord embraces each of us in His Church; being male or female simply does not matter. Paul truly sees the Church as Christ’s mystical bride and his mystical body. And 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 in Baptism and draws her life from Him. Moreover, this “drawing of life” from Christ suggests a Eucharistic overtone, and it connects the Sacrament of Matrimony with the Eucharistic sacrifice and communion which inserts us ever more intimately into the mystical marriage between Christ and the church. For when we receive the Eucharist, we individually, and collectively truly become one flesh with Christ, and we draw from him eternal life.
In short, the Sacrament of Matrimony becomes a great visible sign and witness to the truth that Christ and the Church have become one flesh through his sacrificial death on the cross and resurrection. Thus, Christian husbands and wives, who live their marriage fully according to the model of Christ and the Church, participate in a most wonderful way in that same mystery of Christ’s perfect saving communion of life and love with His Church. And they do this through in one way their own marriage, and in another way through their common reception of the Eucharist. If they do this, then their marriage effectively 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. Thus 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. If they imitate the heavenly Bridegroom, they will live for their wives, precisely 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” their bride, for their Christ-like 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 the authority of the Christian husband, both must act in imitation of Christ’s headship, and His headship is a form of service, not a form of “lording it over” the bride who is one flesh with Him. A perverted form of headship, one not rooted in self-giving love, 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 of this passage from Ephesians is a great mystery, where se says, I speak in reference to Christ and the church. It is a mystery which is part of Christ’s saving action, his life giving union with the Church, and thus a mystery intimately connected with the Holy Eucharist. It is a mystery of love and only people of faith and love can ever hope to understand its beauty. The world does not understand Christian marriage simply because the world does not believe in the mystery of Christ’s saving union with His Church.