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89. Reverence for Christ the Basis of Relationship Between Spouses
By Pope John Paul II
1. Today we
begin a more detailed analysis of the passage of the Letter to the Ephesians
5:21-33. Addressing husbands and wives, the author recommends them to be
"subject to one another out of reverence for Christ" (5:21).
2. The text
chosen by us, as likewise the immediate context, has a "parenetic" character,
that is, of moral instruction. The author of the letter wishes to indicate to
husbands and wives the basis of their mutual relationship and their entire
conduct. He deduces the relative indications and directives from the mystery of
Christ presented at the beginning of the letter. This mystery should be
spiritually present in the mutual relationship of spouses. The mystery of
Christ, penetrating their hearts, engendering in them that holy "reverence for
Christ" (namely pietas), should lead them to "be subject to one
another"—the mystery of Christ, that is, the mystery of the choice from eternity
of each of them in Christ to be the adoptive sons of God.
opening expression of our passage of Ephesians 5:21-33, which we have approached
by an analysis of the remote and immediate context, has quite a special
eloquence. The author speaks of the mutual subjection of the spouses, husband
and wife, and in this way he explains the words which he will write afterward on
the subjection of the wife to the husband. In fact we read: "Wives, be subject
to your husbands, as to the Lord" (5:22). In saying this, the author does not
intend to say that the husband is the lord of the wife and that the
interpersonal pact proper to marriage is a pact of domination of the husband
over the wife. Instead, he expresses a different concept: that the wife can and
should find in her relationship with Christ—who is the one Lord of both the
spouses—the motivation of that relationship with her husband which flows from
the very essence of marriage and of the family. Such a relationship, however, is
not one of one-sided domination. According to the Letter to the Ephesians,
marriage excludes that element of the pact which was a burden and, at times,
does not cease to be a burden on this institution. The husband and the wife are
in fact "subject to one another," and are mutually subordinated to one another.
The source of this mutual subjection is to be found in Christian pietas,
and its expression is love.
4. The author
of the letter underlines this love in a special way, in addressing himself to
husbands. He writes: "Husbands, love your wives...." By expressing himself in
this way, he removes any fear that might have arisen (given the modern
sensitivity) from the previous phrase: "Wives, be subject to your husbands."
Love excludes every kind of subjection whereby the wife might become a servant
or a slave of the husband, an object of unilateral domination. Love makes the
husband simultaneously subject to the wife, and thereby subject to the Lord
himself, just as the wife to the husband. The community or unity which they
should establish through marriage is constituted by a reciprocal donation of
self, which is also a mutual subjection. Christ is the source and at the same
time the model of that subjection, which, being reciprocal "out of reverence for
Christ," confers on the conjugal union a profound and mature character. In this
source and before this model many elements of a psychological or moral nature
are so transformed as to give rise, I would say, to a new and precious fusion of
the bilateral relations and conduct.
our contemporary sensitivity is certainly different. Our mentality and customs
are quite different, too, as is the social position of women in regard to men.
Nevertheless, the fundamental moral principle which we find in the Letter to the
Ephesians remains the same and produces the same results. The mutual subjection
"out of reverence for Christ"—a subjection arising from the basis of Christian
pietas—always produces that profound and solid structure of the community of the
spouses in which there is constituted the true "communion" of the person.
7. The author of the text to the Ephesians, who began his letter with a magnificent vision of God's eternal plan in regard to humanity, does not limit himself to emphasizing merely the traditional aspects of morality or the ethical aspects of marriage. He goes beyond the scope of teaching and writing on the reciprocal relationship of the spouses. He discovers therein the dimension of the mystery of Christ of which he is the herald and the apostle: "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 Savior. 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..." (5:22-25). In this way, the teaching of this parenetic part of the letter is inserted, in a certain sense, into the reality of the mystery hidden from eternity in God and revealed to mankind in Jesus Christ. In the Letter to the Ephesians we are, I would say, witnesses of a particular meeting of that mystery with the essence of the vocation to marriage. How are we to understand this meeting? In the text of the Letter to the Ephesians it is presented above all as a great analogy. There we read: "Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord...." Here we have the first component of the analogy. "For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church...." Here we have the second component which clarifies and motivates the first. "As the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject to their husbands...." The relationship of Christ to the Church, presented previously, is now expressed as a relationship of the Church to Christ, and this contains the successive component of the analogy. Finally: "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her...." This is the ultimate component of the analogy. The remainder of the text of the letter develops the fundamental thought contained in the passage just now quoted. The entire text of the Letter to the Ephesians in 5:21-33 is completely permeated with the same analogy. That is to say, the mutual relationship between the spouses, husband and wife, is to be understood by Christians in the light of the relationship between Christ and the Church.
Source: L'Osservatore Romano
90. A Deeper Understanding of the Church and Marriage - 8.18.1982