Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Mutual Love, with a note on St Paul and the submission of wives

PSALM 23, copyright 2010 by John August Swanson
Serigraph, 15.25" x 24.25"
I look at my husband sleeping so soundly. I smile. Today we celebrate our 29th year of marriage, not counting the ten years of friendship prior to wedding day; we were high school sweethearts. Thirty-nine years of friendship and love! I ponder, thinking of Mary in how she pondered things in her own heart (Luke 2:19). "My soul magnifies the Lord": Mary's prayer resounds into the depths and realities of my marriage and friendship with my husband Joe.

Not too long ago, I found myself giving a retreat to six young married couples. The wonderment of being with them is evidenced by love in the air through the couples' words and gestures. The ambiance is intoxicating but as the facilitator of the retreat, I am faced with the challenge of balancing diversity with a sense of quiet where each of them can meet God and commune as a couple. My theme is "Mutual Loving" based on the Pauline theology of mutual submission, where the Catholic Church unfolds the deeper meaning of unity found in Ephesians 5:21-33. I designed it so that the first husband-wife speakers, who know the theology, would have to paint for our present time the message of St. Paul as it was preached to the early Christians.

A Bit of History

"A Peasant Family Cooking Over a Campfire" by Bartolomeo Pinelli,
courtesy of National Gallery of Art.
We know this, that when Ephesians 5:21-33 is read in the pulpit in our present time, what stands out is “Wives be submissive to their husbands as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22), often leaving an unpleasant feeling in the hearts of women. People may think that it has a sexual bearing on male dominance over women, but in actuality not a single tinge of that has relevance. 

At the time Paul was writing to the Ephesians, household codes were a norm established by Christian leaders for familial and social order in the Mediterranean, where a number of cultures existed: Jewish, Gentile, Greco, Roman, etc. In the household codes, each person in the family and society has a place; the father is head of the family. The ascribed submissiveness of the wife to the husband is descriptive of daily conduct, in the culture in progress at the time. Meant to bring balance to egalitarianism, it served as a reminder for wealthy and educated women to remain respectful of their husbands’ authority.

What is Paul’s message?

Sadly, after the line where the wife is admonished to be submissive, the modern congregation loses interest in listening to the next several sentences. These carry the heavy weight of Paul’s message. In actuality, the scripture passage that sets the tone of the whole scripture is the very first line: “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).

Paul cleverly explains to us the unity between Christ and the Church, His Bride, through the union of a man and woman in marriage (Ephesians 5:31). Lumen Gentium, the primary document of Vatican II, provides a great length of text explaining the importance of Christ’s unity with the Church. I urge you to check out Lumen Gentium #6, where metaphors of tending the sheep, cleansing and nourishing the body, and cultivating the land all relate to Christ’s having suffered, died, and resurrected into new life for his beloved Church. In much the same way, the husband is called to do the same for his wife—to die for her, for her cleansing and re-creation into new life in Christ—which, in essence, is the way to love her as he loves himself (Ephesians 5:28). It does appear that the husband has a greater role in marriage.

However, such is the message Paul sets for the married Christians in his time: As Christ loves his Church, so must the husband love his wife as much as he loves himself; and the wife is to be submissive to the husband. “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21), is where mutuality in marriage lies. Thus, marriage in the Catholic Church is about the self-giving of each spouse—to the other, for the sake of the other. Each is to give to the other unreservedly all for the nourishment and building of the spouse.


In my own space

Thinking of the six couples who attended my retreat, I am glad to have shared the Pauline theology of mutual submission with them. I wish I had understood this in the early stage of my marriage. I am, however, grateful because our Church is filled with many treasures from which my husband and I can draw the grace necessary to make our marriage work—out of reverence for Christ.
As a married couple, Joe and I walk with Mary, the Mother of Christ. She happens to be one of the treasures in marriage, but she covers so many areas that I may have to write about next time. For now…
I wait for my husband to wake to my anniversary greeting and then to pray, as a couple, the Liturgy of the Hours. It sounds like a good place to start the day.

Easter Almuena has been tagged as a Pauline Cooperator for ten years now, but formally she will take her promise this year along three other individuals who also live in Hawai’i. She holds a master’s in pastoral theology through the cohort program of Chaminade University and the Diocese of Honolulu under its diaconate formation. An author and publisher, what she takes pride in is being a wife to Joe and a home school mom to five.

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