Usually, when he comes to this particular second reading, with all its words about “wives be subject to your husbands” and so on, the preacher, especially if he is a celibate male, such as myself, has three options. He will either get someone else to preach, or choose one of the other Mass readings to preach on, or throw together a few safe, unprovocative thoughts on marriage, perhaps throw in a joke or two, and hope for the best.
We all know the snide, knowing barbed comments that men say about women, or women say about men, when they are safely among those of their own. When even Christians join in such put-downs on their spouses, it shows that they have not taken to heart the whole Christian vision for marriage and other relationships, that the Scriptures put forward with such clarity and conviction.
We will never understand the truth and beauty of these words of St Paul in our second reading until we come to terms with the whole transformative call of the gospel to every part of a person’s life. When we accept Jesus Christ as the Lord and centre of our life, of all of our life, then a whole transformation is meant to take place for us. We transition into a whole new way of life, such that St Paul can go so far as to say, in 2 Corinthians 5: 17: ”so if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” This is the language of “being born anew”, of “dying and rising”, that speaks to the reality of baptism for the Christian. To become a “new creation”, something has to die, for something else to be raised up. Listen to St Paul describing this in his letter to the Romans: ”Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6: 3-4) .
“So we might walk in newness of life.” That is the call of the gospel to each and every one of us, that is the reality of becoming Christian. It is about us dying to the old life of paganism and sin so as to live in a totally different way, the way of Christ. It is about us being “imitators of God, as his beloved children, living in love”, and following the example of Christ himself while he was here on earth, living amongst us. Christ still lives amongst us, within us, through his holy Spirit, given to us at our baptism. Christ still lives and breathes and acts through our life, breath and actions. Christ came amongst us as a servant, “not to be served, but to serve” in his own words (Mark 10:45) and “to give his life as a ransom” from sin for us. Because Christ is living in each Christian through their baptism, then he still comes to be a servant to others through us. That means a Christian husband and a Christian wife can and should serve each other in the spirit of Christ, so that we can, in the words of our second reading today “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” So a Christian husband can say to his wife: ”The Christ in me loves and serves the Christ in you”, and the Christian wife can say to her husband: ”The Christ in me loves and serves the Christ in you.“ And that applies to each and every relationship we have within the Christian community. Each of us can, and should, be saying to each other: ”The Christ in me loves and serves the Christ in you.“
Is this ridiculously idealistic, hopelessly romantic, especially when it comes to marriage?
Let me remind you of what the bride and groom promise each other during the wedding ceremony. I am not just talking about all that “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, till death do us part” stuff, though that is part of it. Even before that, both bride and groom promise, before God and witnesses, that they will “love and honour each other as man and wife for the rest of their lives”. Both of them say that, both of them exchange the other vows. The groom and bride are promising that they will do everything in their power to build up the other, to help the other become the best possible version of themselves that they can be. It is a covenant of love and life, to which each is fully and equally committed. The marriage relationship does not work if only one of them comes into it, fully determined to commit fully to making the relationship work as it is supposed to. It will not work if during the marriage, one partner opts out of a full commitment, and reneges on the covenant to love and honor and serve the other. It may limp along if the other partner determines to live out their part of the covenant, but what happens is that the other eventually pulls away, at first internally, and then externally, and the marriage is headed for the rocks and the divorce courts. And to the priest or the marriage counsellor, though by then, it is usually too late. Christ laid down his life as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God for us, as our second reading says. Marriage only works as it is supposed to, as God meant it to, when each partner comes to the wedding determined to do the same for each other, to lay down their life for the other. Christianity only works as it should when each of us baptized come to relationship with the other, determined to lay down our lives to love and serve and honor that other in Christ.
You all know that beautiful story in the Bible about how God fashions a partner for Adam by putting him into a deep sleep, taking a rib from his body and crafting it into a woman, whom he presents to Adam to be “bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh” (Genesis 2:23). There is a beautiful commentary on this reading, taken from the Jewish tradition, and I tell it in nearly every wedding homily I give. The commentary goes like this: God did not take the woman from the foot of the man, because man is not meant to dominate woman, nor did he take the woman out of the head of man, because woman is not meant to dominate the man. Rather God took the woman out of the side of the man, because she is meant to be his soul-mate, his life-partner, side by side, in a fully equal,, mutual covenant of life and love. That is the way it is supposed to be, that is the way God designed it to be. If a marriage or any relationship between man and woman fails to live up to that ideal, when both are Christians, it is because one or other , or both of them have forgotten, or never learned , the Christian vision for life presented in the gospel, or never intended to abide by it in the first place, or have allowed that vision to be stolen from them.
What is the remedy? First, return to the source, to the original vision for Christian relationships presented in the New Testament, such as we have in our second reading. Read there what our relationship is supposed to be like, and ask whether or not we are living up to that high standard. Secondly, return to the original purpose and grace of our baptismal commitment, where we became sons and daughters of God, and given the grace to live like that in the world, because Jesus comes to live in us at the moment of our baptism, so ask him to stir up those graces of baptism, and marriage. Thirdly, be ready to approach the other in repentance and forgiveness and re-commit to living out the relationship as we promised before God and witnesses in the first place. Fourthly, learn the lesson of the first failures, and ask Jesus to be the center of your life and all your relationships, including and especially your marriage. And let him be that always.
Finally, here are the Ten Commandments of Marriage, not devised by me, but based on the Bible,and passed onto me by a married couple, celebrating 37 years of marriage recently, so I can pass them onto you.
1. Do not place others before God and one another- “For this cause shall a man leavehis father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24)
2. Let nothing on earth become more important than your marriage, “Seek first God’s will in your marriage and the other things will come as He desires” (Matthew 6:33)
3. Speak to one another with kindness and love .”Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word kindly spoken” (Proverbs 25:11)
4. Remember to worship together .”Oh come, let us worship and bow down. Let us kneel before the Lord our maker. For He is our God..” (Psalm 95:6-7)
5. Love and accept one another’s family as your own. “your people shall be my people” (Ruth 1:16)
6. Do not harm one another with attitudes or actions. “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour, and evil speaking be put away from you…and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32)
7. Be faithful to one another . “ The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy,, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23)
8. Never take joy from one another.”Above all things put on love, which holds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14)
9. Always speak the truth in love .”The Lord will show you what is right and true, that you may always speak with integrity” (Proverbs 22:21)
10. Do not desire or be envious of what others may have.”I have learned that in whatsoever state I maybe, to be content” (Philippians 4:1)