This passage from Ephesians 5:22-32 is always a cause for discontent. That is because no one reads it to the end; they get fixated in the first couple of lines:
“Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.” (Ep 5:22-24)
Then we start getting all kinds of excuses as to how Paul lived in a sexist, male-dominated culture, yadda, yadda…. But let’s examine this passage further. What does it mean to be subject to someone in the same way that we are subject “to the Lord”?
In the translation that I have before me, the word that is used is, “subject”. In other translations you may find the word, “submit” or “be submissive”. I can see how some women may recoil at the idea of being submissive. That is, of course, if your husband is a sexist and domineering, angry man. But if your husband is Christ? Would you be happy being submissive to Christ?
This is where I always pull out my trusty Etymological Dictionary: The word, “submit” comes from the Latin “submittere”. It literally means sub- ‘under’ + mittere ‘send, put.’ In other words, “to put under” or “to send under”.
Remember at the end of Mass the priest used to send us forth with the words, “Ite, missa est”? The Latin “missa” is from the same root at “mittere” – to send. Ite, missa est, means “go, you are sent”. This is where the English word “dismissal” comes from (go, you are dismissed). When we are dismissed, we are sent. And guess what? The word “mission” comes from the same root. To be sent means to go on a mission.
We can say that to “submit to someone” is to be “put (or sent) under the mission” of that person. For a wife to be submitted to her husband means that she should be under the mission of her husband, in the same way that they (both) should be under the mission of the Lord.
This is where we need to continue reading the passage:
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body.” (Ephesians 25-30)
Need I explain further? The husband’s mission is to love his wife in the same way that Christ loved the Church: totally. What wife would not want to be under that mission of her husband? What wife would not want to submit to her husband’s mission to love her, sanctify her, that she would be holy and blameless?
Paul continues by quoting Jesus in Matthew 19:5 and Genesis 2:24:
For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:31-33)
Ephesians 5:21-32 is not about wives being passive or conforming to their dominating husbands. It is certainly not encouraging husbands to be dominating to their wives. This passage is about how Marriage is about how Christ loves his body, the Church. And it “is a mystery” and Paul is clear that he says that he is “speaking with reference to Christ and the Church.”
St. Paul begins last week’s Second Reading with the words, “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21) Husbands and wives must submit to one another and submit to Christ if they want to succeed in their marriages. This is not just for wives; it is for husbands too. They must both love each other as Christ loves the Church. Again, I am reminded of “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”. Impossible. But this must be our goal.
I’m curious to know your thoughts on this. Write to me. (firstname.lastname@example.org) Next week we’ll circle back and see what all this has to do with the Eucharist.
Every week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: