Likely the most central biblical text for gaining a Christian understanding of marriage is Ephesians 5:21-32. This bit of Scripture talks about marriage as "a great mystery," one which resembles the relationship between Christ and his church.
It can be difficult to understand some aspects of the church's teaching about this sacrament unless we see marriage as a mirror of the communion between God and his people. In fact, Matrimony is very much like Holy Orders in this respect -- both sacraments of service are, in different ways, to resemble the mutual love between God and the church.
The excerpt from Ephesians, once a favorite reading at weddings, is not without problems. The problems derive from Ephesians 5:22-23 — "Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church."
Perhaps Paul didn't intend it this way, but it is difficult for us today to hear these verses in any light other than that of patriarchy and male domination. Talk of the husband as the head of the wife conjures up images of Archie and Edith Bunker, she ever at his beck and call, he ever a loudmouth lout.
In his 1930 encyclical on Christian Marriage, Pope Pius XI says a few things which bolster such an interpretation. He cites the Ephesians text approvingly as a prescription for "the ready subjection of the wife and her willing obedience." He goes on to qualify this obedience, saying that the wife need not obey requests which undermine human dignity and that she ought not to be treated as equivalent to a minor. Still, Pope Pius concludes by saying that the man is the head of the family and the woman the heart of it.
What is interesting about the teaching of Pope John Paul II is the very different approach he takes to this topic. Instead of emphasizing Ephesians 5:22-23, he zeroes in on 5:25 — "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her."
In his major 1981 document on the family, the pope writes that marital love "requires that a man have a profound respect for the dignity of his wife." He goes on to condemn "a wrong superiority of male prerogatives which humiliates women and inhibits the development of healthy family relationships" (Community of the Family, 25).
Pope John Paul returned to the subject seven years later in his statement On The Dignity and Vocation of Women. Here he says Ephesians 5:22-23 is "profoundly rooted in the customs and religious tradition of the times" and that it must be interpreted in terms of Ephesians 5:21 — "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ."
"All the reasons for the 'subjection' of woman to man in marriage," he says, "must be understood in the sense of a 'mutual subjection' of both 'out of reverence for Christ.'" Gone is all talk of the husband as head and the wife as the heart of the family.
And while the marriage relationship mirrors the relationship between Christ and the church, that does not mean that the husband symbolizes Christ and the wife symbolizes the church. "Whereas in the relationship between Christ and the church the subjection is only on the part of the church, in the relationship between husband and wife the 'subjection' is not one-sided, but mutual" (no. 24).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church also reflects this rather remarkable shift in papal teaching. There is not a single reference in the Catechism to Ephesians 5:22-23. There is, however, a reference to Ephesians 5:21 in the section we examine this week. It is a beautiful description of how Christ enables a couple to deal with their difficulties and to grow stronger in their love:
"Christ dwells with (Christian spouses), gives them the strength to take up their crosses and so follow him, to rise again after they have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another's burdens, to 'be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,' and to love one another with supernatural, tender, and fruitful love" (no. 1642).
Perhaps nowhere in all of Christian teaching will one find such a succinct and apt description of how to live out the sacrament of Matrimony in a way which respects the full and equal dignity of one's partner.
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