As a bishop, I subscribe to and read several different publications in a futile attempt to keep up. I never seem to get ahead of the game. Half-jokingly, I tell people that I have a large filing cabinet at home on which are two piles of periodicals and unread books. One pile is comprised of those that I want to read; the other, a much larger pile that other people think that I ought to read. I usually opt for a selection from the smaller pile.
About two weeks ago, I finally got around to scanning the January 13th issue of Maclean's magazine, where the health column was entitled: "The new science of marriage." The subheading beneath the interlinked marriage rings was a real teaser: "Exercise? Diet? Actually, new research shows getting married-and staying married-may be the best thing you can do for a longer, healthier life."
The main thesis of the three page column is revealed in the following text: "In a vast array of scientific studies, over and over again, a happy union has been shown to benefit virtually every system of the body. It reduces risk of heart attack and stroke. It triples a patient's survival after bypass surgery. It lowers production of stress hormones, and boosts immune response. Married people are also less likely to drink and smoke... Quite simply, if we could package it in a pill, marriage would qualify as a wonder drug. Finding a way to mimic the benefits of marriage could well be the most critical health challenge of our time... We are designed, not just emotionally and socially, but physiologically, to live in close connection with people who will come when we call."
In order to complete the circle, we should insert "spiritually" into that close connection as the baptized have received a sacrament and are "married in the Lord." We can unpack something of this notion of being "married in the Lord" by reflecting on Ephesians 5:21- 6:9.
Early Christianity seems to have taken over household codes from Hellenistic Judaism, which in turn adapted them from the Stoics. The codes set forth the duties of wives, husbands, parents, children, masters, and slaves. In the New Testament these codes are tweaked or taken over and transformed by the reality that Christ's power and presence is to bear on all human institutions. Devoted service and excellence within these should then be regarded as a personal service to Christ.
The heading for the household code in Ephesians is: "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ" [v.21], which announces a principle that is successively applied to the relations between husband and wife, children and parents, slaves and masters. Christ's self-sacrificing love for others is now the model for home life. The motivation is "as to the Lord" [v.22].
Verse 22 is the often anger-inducing, dreaded, ignored or deleted: "Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands."
Many people have a hard time getting beyond: "Wives be subject to your husbands in everything." But that line doesn't stand alone and should not be taken out of context. Whenever I read or hear this text, I immediately recall my mom sitting between my dad and one of my brothers in church and mom getting a elbow in the ribs from both sides accompanied by a double smirk equivalent to "Did you hear that?"
Fortunately, the process of Christianizing goes much further than this simplistic rendering of the text. Ephesians provides a unique elaboration of marriage as a parable of the relation between Christ and his Church In this theological expansion of the code, St. Paul brought together a remarkable variety of traditions.
He takes the statement about the unity of husband and wife in marriage from Gen 2:24. "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife and they become one flesh."
He also portrays the Church in the language of Levitical purity. The command to love one's neighbor [Lev. 19] provides the basis for presentation of the bride in verse 27. "So as to present the church to himself in splendor without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind - yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish.
An early Christian kerygmatic formula is reproduced in verse 25, "Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her...," and a baptismal-liturgical formula in verse 26 ,"in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word."
In verses 23 and 29 the Pauline figure of the Church as the body of Christ reappears, and "the one flesh" is elevated: "for no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church..."
With these materials the author has skillfully interwoven two parallel themes the duties of husband and wife, and the ecclesiological theme of the relation between Christ and the Church.
As a result, the marriage relationship is transformed from one in which the wife is simply subjected to the husband without qualification into one in which the husband is to devote himself unreservedly to the love of his wife. Thus, the household code is turned upside down.
On the literal level, this text speaks of the union of husband and wife. It has another, higher level of meaning, portraying the unity between Christ and the Church. The author's doctrine of the Church is not built up from below, from a natural understanding of marriage; rather, his understanding of marriage is built from above; from a theological understanding of the mystical union between Christ and his Church.
I want to thank everyone who completed the questionnaire regarding the upcoming meeting of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on The Pastoral Challenges for the Family in the Context of Evangelization. Despite the short timeline, more than 250 individuals and groups participated and produced more than 1,000 pages of text.
Rather than attempt to synthesize the responses and thereby risk diminishing the content, the freshness, the importance and the seriousness with which this task was undertaken by so many from the grass-roots, all the results were forwarded to both the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and Archbishop Baldisseri at the Synod Office in the Vatican.
Among the many lessons to be learned from this experience, I mentioned two in my cover letter to the CCCB and the Archbishop: "First of all, our people want to be consulted. They love the church, are hurting and broken, want to be taken seriously and not treated paternalistically. If we take the time to ask them what they think, they will tell us. It may not be what we want to hear but what we need to hear. Secondly, we are not speaking their language. Our learned documents (even the questionnaire) are very remote from their lived reality. There are enormous gaps between our teaching and its appropriation. As preachers and teachers, we have so much to learn about communication. Thank God for the "sensus fidelium." For the first time, in the lives of so many, we have a Pope who is speaking to them in a language that they understand."
☩ F. B. Henry
Bishop of Calgary