Go ahead, husbands, nudge away
If you are a Catholic who went to Mass this weekend at a church that used the readings for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, and if you listened to the readings, you heard in the second reading from the fifth chapter of St. Paul's Letter to the Ephesians (verses 21 and forward). It is a reading that sounds odd in our modern ears, as if we somehow know so much more than those poor, backward ancients who believed wives should be subordinate to their husbands in all things, as to the Lord.
Our politically correct ears risk hearing a message which we think gives husbands the easier task because St. Paul says to husbands only "love your wives" as opposed to "be subordinate." Some may even think St. Paul's text is some misogynistic attempt to control wives. Don't husbands get off easy in this letter?
Nope! You see, it is first important to recall that St. Paul opens this section of the letter (verse 21) to the Ephesians by instructing all believers to "be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ". How is this done in particular in the relationship between husband and wife? Well, first believers are to recognize the Scriptural description of Christ's relationship to his Church, namely that he is Bridegroom and the Church is Bride. Likewise then, husbands occupy the role of bridegroom and head of the body, as wives occupy the corresponding role of bride or rest of the body. So, St. Paul says, wives should be subordinate to their husbands.
Yeah, but don't husbands get off easy. After all, St. Paul only directs them to love their wives. That sounds a great deal easier than being subordinate. Oh, really?!
You see, St. Paul actually wrote to husbands: Love your wives even as Christ loved the church! And how did Christ love the Church? Take a look at the nearest crucifix! Christ's style of love for his Bride was a love that suffered, a love unto death! If that isn't an equal image of subordination for husbands, I don't know what is! Sure, the English translation of St. Paul's words may use "subordination" in one place (for wives) and "love" in another (for husbands), but the whole reading hinges on all believers being subordinate to one another "out of reverence for Christ."
Too often when this reading is proclaimed we latch onto the meaning our modern, advanced ears think is in St. Paul's words. There is uncomfortable shifting in the pews of our churches and husbands nudge their wives, as if to say, "Listen up, Honey, you're supposed to be subordinate to me." I'm afraid we often miss the depth, the beauty, and full import of what St. Paul is actually communicating.
So, in my homily this weekend, in explaining this Pauline imagery as a reminder that each of us must be subordinate to Christ the Master who teaches and insists that he is the living bread come down from heaven and that the bread is his flesh, what did I say to my people? I mentioned the mutual subordination at the basis of St. Paul's message. I referenced that husbands nudge the ribs of their wife and then I said, but Christ's model to husbands for loving their wives is the example of the crucifix. "So," I said pointing to the large crucifix in church "husbands, you can nudge your wife's ribs just as soon as you are ready for a spear to pierce your own!"
Go ahead, husbands, nudge away...