Ephesians 5: Bridegroom and Bride

By submitting herself to her husband, the wife is allowing her man to sacrifice himself for her.

It is Mass on the Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time, in late summer only a few years ago. Fortunately the air conditioning seems to be holding up, for this year at least. The celebrant offers the Opening Prayer, asking the Father for help, to seek the values that will bring lasting joy in a changing world. Seated beside the celebrant, the deacon at this Mass, I join the assembly in preparing to listen to the Word of God. The Scripture readings are from Year B, and we hear the stirring invitation of Joshua: “Decide today whom you will serve…As for me any my household, we will see the Lord” (Josh. 24:15).  The cantor leads us to respond: “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”

But next comes the one passage that no one really seems to listen to; out of all of Scripture proclaimed over the complete three-year cycle, this is one passage that is consistently ignored, rejected or misinterpreted—I call it the “nudging” Scripture. After twenty years of ordained ministry, sitting in the sanctuary behind the ambo, every third year I can watch for the elbows. The reader begins: “A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians. Brothers and sisters, be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

Show humility and defer to others, as we often hear in other readings, but are we ready for the next sentence? “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.”

Suddenly, the many male faces are alert; the wives of the quickest feel an elbow against their arms. And the faces of some women fall, eyes cast down; it is as if their minds can read: “Oh, no. Not again. Not this Sunday.”

“For the husband is head of his wife…” More nudges and smirks creep across male faces. However, in the self-satisfaction of men and the embarrassment of the women, the remaining phrases of the current sentence are missed: “…just as Christ is head of the Church, he himself the savior of the body.”

A seemingly three-fold admonition is fulfilled with the next sentence: “As the Church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.”

The “triumph” of the husband on this hot summer day contrasts with the flushed cheeks, perhaps even anger, of too many wives. And, the remainder of the passage remains unheard and unheralded:

Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the Church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

So (also) husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body. For this reason a man shall leave (his) father and (his) mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.

This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church.

In anticipation of this passage, whether from previous liturgies over the years, or in conscious awareness of the so-called women’s movement in the larger culture, the assigned homilist for that Sunday decides to either ignore the second reading entirely, or have the reader proclaim the “shorter” version, thereby leaving out the submission and headship phrases. Worse, so I have been told (but never observed), different passages are substituted or, worst of all, the wording of the text changed.

The irony of this situation is that Ephesians 5:21-33 is a critical passage for the self-understanding of the Church, the nature of the sacraments of matrimony and Holy Orders, and the theology of the body, both human and divinized. Ephesians 5 is a two-way lens through which other critical passages of Scripture are illuminated and magnified. Human limitation necessitates that the Word be heard in fragments, Sunday after Sunday, but Catholic understanding of Scripture requires that it be understood as a whole.

First, let us deal with the glaring issue of “submission.” If all we were to read or hear were these three fragments, “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord…For the husband is the head of his wife…wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything,” we would not be able to engage in Catholic understanding. Not only must we consider the entire passage, we need to consider the entire Pauline corpus, especially reflect on the four Gospels, and, ultimately, take all of Divine Revelation into account. Why? Because—“This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church.”

What is the nature of the submission called for? “…subordinate…as to the Lord.” Is the husband taking the place of Christ? Seemingly so: “As the Church is subordinate to Christ…” But what might this mean?

Look at what is required of the husband: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church…” How did Christ love the Church? He “handed himself over for her.” Christ Jesus sacrificed himself for her, the Church. Is not sacrifice of oneself unto death for another the ultimate submission, the complete subordination? Recall how the passage begins: “Be subordinate to one another.”

By submitting herself to her husband, the wife is allowing her man to sacrifice himself for her! More critically, the very nature of human procreation requires initiation and culmination of the intimate bond by the male, as the two become one flesh (Gen. 2:24), as an expression of natural love, eros:

First, eros is somehow rooted in man’s very nature; Adam is a seeker, who “abandons his mother and father” in order to find woman; only together do the two represent complete humanity and become “one flesh.” The second aspect is equally important. From the standpoint of creation, eros directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive; thus, and only thus, does it fulfill its deepest purpose. Corresponding to the image of a monotheistic God is monogamous marriage. Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love. This close connection between eros and marriage in the Bible has practically no equivalent in extra-biblical literature (Pope Benedict XVI, 2005, Deus Caritas Est).

We encounter in Ephesians 5 a profound analogy, which

illuminating the mystery of the relationship between Christ and the Church, contemporaneously unveils the essential truth about marriage: that is, that marriage corresponds to the vocation of Christians only when it reflects the love which Christ the Bridegroom gives to the Church, His Bride, and which the Church (resembling the “subject” wife, that is, completely given) attempts to return to Christ (John Paul II, 1986, The Theology of Marriage and Celibacy, St. Paul Editions, p. 194).

For the Christian husband and wife are themselves part of the Church, “members of his body,” the Bride of Christ. Within the body of Christ (initiated by Christ’s sacrifice), the husband submits to Christ as a member of his body, sacrifices himself for his wife, who subordinates herself to both him and Christ by accepting her husband’s sacrifice. As John Paul II wrote:

…the first subject, Christ, manifests the love with which He has loved her [the Church] by giving himself for her. That love is an image and above all a model of the love which the husband should show to his wife in marriage, when the two are subject to one another “out of reverence for Christ” (John Paul II, 1986, The Theology of Marriage and Celibacy, St. Paul Editions, p. 202).

New members of the Church are begotten as husband and wife become one and bring their children to “the bath of water with the word.”

The sacramentality of marriage is, then, a further enfleshment of the sacrifice of Christ for the Church manifested in the sacrifice of the husband for his bride. The birth of the Church and her marriage to Christ occurred simultaneously on the Cross, as water and blood poured forth from his side (John 19:34), and was foreshadowed at Cana (John 2:1-10). Christ becomes one flesh with the Church each time Eucharist is celebrated and received.

Ephesians 5, illuminating the rest of Sacred Scripture, compels us to accept and assert those fundamental teachings of the Church that are under attack today.

  • Each marriage consists of one man and one woman.
  • The man is husband; the woman is wife.
  • Marriage lasts until death (for they are one flesh).
  • The Church has one Savior, one Bridegroom.
  • Sacramental marriage is not only the image of Christ’s love for the Church, it accomplishes that love.
  • The minister of the Eucharist is male, acting in persona Christi.

So what should the homilist on the Twenty-first Sunday of Year B preach? Proclaim the mystery! The Christian mystery is neither hidden nor waiting to be deduced; it is revealed in the Gospel, the witness of the Church, and in the living out of the sacraments, and awaits fulfillment in the second coming of the Bridegroom. Give the opportunity for each married woman in the assembly to recognize or be reminded of her dignity as a wife, the image of the Bride of Christ. Challenge all husbands to accept and fulfill their image of the Bridegroom who sacrifices himself for his Bride, the Church, and is also a member of the Church. Give the unmarried a vision of their dignity within the Body as Bride of Christ. As the Gospel of that Sunday states (and I am honored to proclaim):

Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).

Deacon Rex H. Pilger About Deacon Rex H. Pilger

Deacon Rex H. Pilger, ordained in 1988, and his wife Rita have been married 35 years. They have five grown children and three preschool grandchildren. Deacon Pilger is aspirancy coordinator, St. Francis School of Deacons, Archdiocese of Denver. He received his Ph.D. in Geological Sciences from the University of Southern California.