I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the second reading from the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 26th):
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its saviour. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; (Eph 5:21-32)
I remember this being a suggested reading for our wedding, but, like many young couples, we couldn’t get past the Wives, be subject to your husbands. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to be subject to anyone else either. Part of the problem was that we didn’t read further to get to the Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. If anything, the majority of this reading can be taken on the surface to be about the husband sacrificing himself for his wife, just as Christ did for the church.
With the wisdom of hindsight I see another part of the problem we had with this reading was that, in our youth, we didn’t properly understand the true meaning of love.
Christ defines love as: No greater love has one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. (Jn 15:13)
This is further defined in the Catholic Catechism as: “To love is to will the good of another.” All other affections have their source in this first movement of the human hear toward the good. Only the good can be loved. Passions “are evil if love is evil and good if it is good.” (1766)
Unfortunately, modern society has equated love with lust. Not only lust in a sexual nature (though this is quite evident in how love is portrayed in popular culture) but also in the love/lust of material things. How often do we proclaim to love something when what we are really saying is: “Wouldn’t I be a better person and my life more complete if I had this object in my possession?”
We have turned love into an ego-centric emotion. Even when it comes to our relationships with others we profess to love, love is confused with lust and becomes a selfish emotion. How many people will tell someone “I love you!” with the express (or perhaps unconscious) intention of having that person satisfy some personal need (either sexually or for their personal image). That is far from wanting the good of the other. It is not love as Christ intended. It is lust.
To truly understand what love is, we need to separate our understanding of love from our lustful instincts. Love isn’t just a word uttered but an outward action of putting another’s needs before our own. We can like an object, even lust after it if it is for the greater glory of God, but to love an object according to the definition of the Catholic Church is impossible.
Loving someone isn’t easy either. Willing the good of the other above our own good can run against our natural instinct for survival. Once again, to understand love we need to return to Christ’s words:
No greater love has one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. (Jn 15:13)
And if this is the true meaning of love, then a husband most definitely needs to be subject to his wife.