“Wives should be subject to their husbands as to the Lord, since, as Christ is head of the Church and saves the whole body, so is a husband the head of his wife; and as the Church is subject to Christ, so should wives be to their husbands, in everything. Husbands should love their wives, just as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her to make her holy by washing her in cleansing water with a form of words, so that when he took the Church to himself she would be glorious, with no speck or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and faultless. In the same way, husbands must love their wives as they love their own bodies; for a man to love his wife is for him to love himself. A man never hates his own body, but he feeds it and looks after it; and that is the way Christ treats the Church (…) This mystery has great significance, but I am applying it to Christ and the Church.”
— Eph 5:22-29, 32 (NJB)
In yesterday’s readings, we get one of the most hated passages from St. Paul. I’m talking about the one where the apostle asks wives to submit to their husbands.
Contrary to what is perceived nowadays, Paul doesn’t make this plight out of misogyny or patriarchal authoritarianism, but because he wants to make a point, by comparing Christ’s relationship with His Church with a relationship between husband and wife. This is, according to Paul, a “great mystery.”
This is not the only biblical instance where we get this analogy. Many of Jesus’ parables use marriage as a metaphor for the eschatological moment when God and His people will finally be reunited (Mt 9:15; Mt 22:1-13; Mt 25:1-14). And the incident at the wedding of Cana can also be viewed as an archetype of this Christ-Church marriage, where God miraculously turns insipid water into wine of joy. In the Old Testament also, some Early Church Fathers saw in the Song of Songs an anticipation of the love story between Christ and Church, where they are protrayed longing for each other.
For far too long, theologians and clergymen have focused on how marriage could be construed as a metaphor between Christ and Church, since they longed for tangible realities that allowed them to better grasp the pure transcendence of God’s nature. But the metaphor can (and will only work if it does) work the other way around… and by that I mean, if we can better grasp the true nature of marriage by contemplating the way Christ and Church interact with each other.
Even as St. Paul tells us that he is applying this mystery to Christ and the Church, it is undeniable that he uses this metaphor as a sort of guidelines as to how we regular humans should behave, instructing both wives and husbands on how to act properly in their marriages. And Pope St. John Paul II said, in his Theology of the Body catechesis:
“A careful analysis of the text shows that in this case, it is not merely a comparison in a metaphorical sense, but of a real renewal (or of a “re-creation,” that is, of a new creation) of that which constituted the salvific content (in a certain sense, the “salvific substance”) of the primordial sacrament. This observation has an essential significance both for the clarification of the sacramentality of the Church (…), and also for the understanding of the sacramentality of marriage, understood precisely as one of the sacraments of the Church”
— General Audience of Wednesday, 20th October 1982, # 8
So, we can both learn about Christ and the Church by looking at human marriages and learn about human marriages by looking at Christ and the Church.
But how does this “marriage” between Christ and the Church play out? Is it a pinkish fairy tale romance where everything goes well? No, not at all. The Scriptural basis for this matrimonial Christ-Church analogy goes even deeper… in fact, it spirals into uncomfortable depths.
Old Testament Israel is also viewed as an archetype of the Church… and the prophets have used the matrimonial analogy to decry Israel’s unfaithfulness to the One True God. The Book of Hosea is nothing more than an elaboration of this metaphor to the extreme, where the prophet goes and marries a prostitute to better illustrate Israel’s shameful idolatry, which is perceived as adulterous relatively to the Lord. And Prophet Jeremiah does not mince words by proclaiming:
” ‘If a man divorces his wife and she leaves him and becomes someone else’s, has he the right to go back to her? Has not that piece of land been totally polluted? And you, having played the whore with many lovers, you claim the right to come back to me! Yahweh demands. ‘Lift your eyes to the bare heights and look! Where have you not offered your sex! You waited by the roadside for them like an Arab in the desert. You have polluted the country with your prostitution and your vices (…) From now on, do not cry out at me, “My father! My beloved ever since I was young! Will he keep up his anger for ever, maintain his wrath to the end?” You say this but still go on sinning, being so obstinate.’ (…) ‘Have you seen what disloyal Israel has done? How she has made her way up every high hill and to every green tree, and played the whore there? I thought, “After doing all this she will come back to me.” But she did not come back (…) She also saw that I had repudiated disloyal Israel for all her adulteries and given her her divorce papers (…) So go and shout words towards the north, and say: “Come back, disloyal Israel, Yahweh declares, I shall frown on you no more, since I am merciful, Yahweh declares. I shall not keep my anger for ever. Only acknowledge your guilt: how you have rebelled against Yahweh your God, how you have prostituted yourself with the Strangers under every green tree and have not listened to my voice, Yahweh declares”
— Jer 3: 1-2, 4-8, 12-13 (NJB)
There are many more prophetic examples of this, but they just repeat the same message: Israel has become an adulteress towards God, her husband, by offering her love to all sorts of idols.
What about today? The god-idols of old may be dead and buried, but there are still many idols lurking about, many lovers with which to commit adultery. We have seen a tragic example of this just in the past few weeks, with the sexual abuse scandal. Many of our Church leaders have succumbed to the errors of clericalism… and by doing so, preferred love for power, status and reputation over the love for Christ, Who should be seen in every suffering person, namely the abuse victims.
Many in the laity have been rightfully scandalized by this behavior and are confronted with a terrible question: how can Christ’s love be present in this Church?
But we can see that, even if Israel has practiced sinful and horrendous adultery with the most perverted idols, God’s love does not subside. Yes, He will chastise Israel, punish Israel, sometimes even “abandon” Israel for a while… but even when He does so, He never stops thinking of His beloved, even following Her in a hidden way, eagerly awaiting for the day She will return to His arms. His roughest words are never the last… usually His venting always finishes with a melancholic and tender sighing for His wife, a hope and promise for reunification. He never delves in His wounded self, on the betrayal He had to experience, on His humiliation… rather, His sanctions and actions serve a corrective, not retributive role.
Let me be clear, I’m not saying that the culprits of these vicious crimes should remain unpunished. I’m talking about the Church as a whole, for people seem to be losing faith in Her. Those who are guilty of these horrid crimes must be brought to justice, so that they will not hurt anyone anymore… but the Church as a whole, including its institutional side, remains loved by God, Who dwells in Her even when She is unfaithful to Him.
But the error of such adultery/idolatry is not, unfortunately, limited to clergy. Even if its mistakes are not at all comparable in gravity (or in any way related) to the abuse crisis, the entire Church (including the laity) can (and must) learn something from this analogy. It is true that the laity also, in many areas and respects, has many times preferred power, money, status, honor, fame or any other idol to following Christ.
This is particularly visible when people try to change the Church’s course in order to fit their preconceived ideas and ideologies, showing that those ideas and ideologies are their true love, not Jesus Who guides the Church.
Just like in the classical sitcom gag where a woman, in the heat of the moment, sighs the name of her lover during an intimate moment with her husband… so too it happens very much with many who claim to be faithful.
How many have said they are following and loving Christ, when they are actually following personalities who undermine the Vicar of Christ? How many have proclaimed their love for doctrine while thinking of the non-authoritative, non-magisterial opinions of their favorite pundits, who say what their itchy ears want to hear? How many claim to love the Church, when in fact they love just a fraction of Her, precisely because such fraction plays footsies with a secular Messiah of sorts?
And yet, many who commit such adultery, are also the ones who, dissenting from a magisterial document, shun the divorced and remarried! They claim that those couples are living in an adulterous relationship, while at the same doing nothing to solve their own spiritual adultery. They say that it is enough to notify the divorced and remarried of their errors, while at the same time digging their heels in their dissent and eschewing any correction. They try to take the mote from their brethren’s eyes, while maintaining the beam in theirs.
However, if we learn from this matrimonial metaphor, we will understand that that is not the way God acts. Christ, as we have seen before, is patient with His Church. With longanimity, He will endure all of His Church’s faults and unfaithfulnesses, while not withdrawing His love from Her. He will tolerate the chaff growing up with the wheat inside our hearts and inside our lives, for He knows that we can’t bear to be instantaneously ripped from our sins without condemning ourselves… rather, we sanctify ourselves through a progressive path. Knowing our limitations, and loving us accordingly, He will accompany us throughout that journey, acting each step of the way to bring us progressively closer to Him (both at the individual level, and at the collective level), so that we may attain the fullness of this eschatological marriage.
Even as every member of the Church falls everyday into this adulterous relationship we have with our idols, we can see that God does not withhold his Communion with us. His Sacraments are always there, and the Eucharist always truly present in every tabernacle in the world. It is we that can withhold Communion with Him, when we follow our idol-lovers instead of our spouse, when we refuse to submit to Him, like wives should do to their husbands.
Christ, on the other hand, is the perfect husband. As St. Paul tells us, He loved us, His Church, and “sacrificed Himself for us to make us holy” by washing us in “cleansing water“… so that when He “takes the Church to Himself, She will be glorious, with no speck or wrinkle, but holy and faultless“.
He is the epitome of the Theology of the Body, by giving up His body in a total gift of Himself, dying for us in the cross. He died for us. And He died for us when we were still in our sins (Rm 5:8).
In here, we see that Christ’s love for His Church is unconditional. Surely He can (and should) ask the Church not to remain in adultery with Her idols… but He does that for the Church’s sake, not for His sake. However, He loves every sinner infinitely, even in spite of all his/her sins.
Make no mistake. Christ does indeed tolerate our adulteries for now, but His ultimate goal is the final, eschatological reunion with us in the fullness of the matrimonial ideal. The end of the process is the regularization of our marital situation relatively to Him… His patience should not be construed as declaring our adulteries lycit, as some dissenters declare when they misread Amoris Laetitia. Our idolatries are intrinsically evil and, in the end, we will have to chose whether we are a part of the marriage or not… but even then, there are some mystics (like St. Isaac of Syria) who postulate that Hell’s flames are nothing but the burning of God’s unconditional love scourging the twisted consciences of the damned.
If the married couple is a metaphor for Christ’s relationship with His Church, so too are the ones who have divorced and remarried, since those situations are inextricably linked to the reality of marriage (what shouldn’t happen always points to what should happen.) We should do well in viewing those in such irregular situations, not as sinners we should disdain, as if we were morally superiors to them, but as a catechesis of our own sins, our everyday adulteries. If we did so, we would not be so scandalized by the fact that God has extended His mercy and Communion to the divorced and remarried… rather, we would be joyful for His outreach, since His embrace envelops us too. This is indeed Gospel, this is indeed Good News.
In the meantime, we remain in an irregular situation of adultery, until the time when we will (hopefully) submit to Him and regularize our situation. Something that will only happen at the end of our lives and in the End of Times. Then, He will take us and love us as a husband loves his wife, and the bonds between us shall be indissoluble, even in spite of our less than faithful past.
This is indeed a great mystery, relatively to Christ and the Church!
[Photo credit: Prophet Hosea with his wife Gomer; Unknown author]
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.