Saturday, August 22, 2015

August 23, 2015 - Becasue Ephesians 5 is our Sunday Epistle

The Magisterium of the Church has faithfully preserved the tradition of sound Scriptural interpretation. Pope Benedict summarized the four necessary components of properly interpreting the scriptures in a February 2010 audience; “the literal or historical, the allegorical or Christological, the tropological or moral, and the anagogical, which orients a person to eternal life. Today it has been rediscovered that these senses are dimensions of the one meaning of Sacred Scripture and that it is right to interpret Sacred Scripture by seeking the four dimensions of its words” (Audience 2-10-10). This renewal in Biblical studies had started even before the Second Vatican Council, when, for example, Pope Pius XII reminded the Church that  “the interpreter [of scripture] must, as it were, go back wholly in spirit to those remote centuries of the East and with the aid of history, archaeology, ethnology, and other sciences.”
Interpreting the text in its historical context is thus a prerequisite for the correct interpretation of Scripture as a whole. This tends to get lost in today’s discussion of marriage in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The question of the culture and peoples to whom Paul was writing, and the intended message that he wished to convey to them at that time and place in history, may be given short shrift as our own impressions of Ephesians 5 are bantered about using no more than our personal mindsets and modern sensibilities. I hope here to give another “shot” at interpreting Ephesians 5:21-33 in a way that brings the true revelation of Scripture to bear on modern marriages, by situating it in the cultural and family milieu of the first century, and the broader theological thought of St. Paul which is also indispensable here.
Trying to build on this historical context, let us remember first of all that Christianity entered the world of ancient cultures where “human rights” as we know them were a foreign concept. On the other hand, power and authority were well understood, and while not all men enjoyed positions of power or authority, to say the least, even fewer were the women who could claim any such position. In short, it is imperative to consider whether there would be any purpose for the proclamation of the Gospel by the Apostles to set as a priority that no woman enjoyed any power or authority over a man (as Paul actually says in the specific context of 1 Timothy 2:12), when the culture and the world all around already insisted on this as the status quo.
Because the context of this ancient culture is lost, people think that Ephesians 5:21-33 is primarily a theological “argument” trying to get insubordinate wives (and servants and children) to submit to authority. But is this really St. Paul’s goal? This was already happening rather ubiquitously. The culture already insisted upon it and it was indeed the standard practice (happily or unhappily). Let us consider that the point of this passage would not be that subservient roles need to be reinforced. No. Let us consider that Paul’s point was that, insofar as these authority structures were being followed already, they needed to be followed in a new way. True, Paul did not seem to think the external state of affairs is what needed to change. Equally true, he was saying the internal disposition towards this patriarchal societal structure did need to change. All things must be now be done “in Christ.” Regardless of whether the “subordinate” roles in marriage or society are naturally created by God, as Paul seems to say quite clearly, or whether they were actually imposed artificially by men, they all need to be reevaluated in the light of the Gospel. Power and authority need to be reevaluated in light of the Gospel.
This brings us to the relevant question. Whether or not the deconstruction of subservient expectations in today’s societies and marriages was the result of Christianity - whether our current notions of equality be good, bad, or indifferent - how do we reevaluate the present state of affairs in light of the Gospel? The internal disposition is still the first priority. If external practices in marriage, family, or society need to change, it does no good to impose them from the outside. So this may be how to frame the question of interpreting Ephesians 5 today; our first concern should not be to change who is submitting to whose decisions, but to insist that whichever decisions are subjected to whomever, that the reason for doing so be constantly reconsidered in the light of the Gospel. And the Gospel refers all things to Christ.
Therefore, in order to paraphrase Ephesians 5:21-33 in a way that might help modern husbands and wives reevaluate their own lives in light of the Gospel, let us go back to the historical context, and paraphrase this passage in a way that would still capture the meaning that St. Paul intended to convey to the peoples in first century Ephesus. We might consider an amplified version of Paul's intended to say, bringing out several elements: 1) their societally accepted language of power and authority, well known in the ancient world yet often re-interpreted by Jesus himself, 2) the broader theological thought that Paul expressed in Ephesians 1 (and 1 Corinthians 12-13) about the headship of Christ, and 3) Paul’s personal imperatives to all Christians based on the Christological morality of Philippians 2, in imitation of Christ’s humility referenced at the very beginning of Ephesians 5. Such an amplified paraphrase may then allow us to translate the passage for our society in a more meaningful way. So if Paul were to elaborate more on what was going through his mind when he wrote this Epistle in the first century, perhaps Ephesians 5:21-33 would read more like this:
(21) Whenever any of you accepts the authority of another, do it for reverence of Christ, and not for any other reason, any reason which is an excuse for selfishness. For Christ was completely selfless, and yet he is the one in authority over all of us. (22) Wives, when you accept the authority of your husbands, do not do it for any utilitarian or compromising reason. Do it as a means of glorifying the Lord Jesus Christ. (23) For God has given a husband a natural power over his wife and family to serve them, the same way that Christ has a natural power over the Church to save it through his self-sacrifice. For no authority can be used to command another to sin. (24) Therefore the way the Church accepts Jesus Christ as Lord, in this manner is the way you should accept the authority of your husband. (25) Husband, do not think that Christ your Lord will let you love and honor your wife half-heartedly. Christ commands you to love your wife as he loved the Church. (26) His sacrifice did not lead her into sin, such that indignity and corruption would lead her to condemnation. Rather, his sacrifice made her holy, and his power, through water and the word, was used to cleanse her. (27) Christ cleansed the church precisely so that he could wed her. She became his immaculate bride, such was his intention to unite her to himself in holiness. (28) For Christ and the Church are united so closely that they are even one body, as will be quoted from Scripture in a moment. As there is no selfishness in saying Christ loves himself through loving his body the Church, so a man loves himself unselfishly through loving and cherishing his wife, so closely are husband and wife to be united in Christ. (29) Therefore husbands, if you would not use the natural powers of your arms and legs in any way that would harm yourself, learn from Christ’s selfless love of the Church, that, you are commanded not to use your natural power over your wife and family in any way whatsoever that would harm them who have become your own flesh. (30) Christ has made us into his own body, (31) and this was prophesied by Scripture, that the reason “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh,” is because (32) this is a natural sign of the great mystery of Christ united to the Church, whom he loved in selflessness. (33) Therefore husbands, as natural as it seems to you to use the natural powers of your arms and legs for your own happiness, so naturally does Christ take care of his own body. So, if you are to reverence Christ and not sin through selfishness against him who has authority over you, then you should use your authority only as you would use your natural powers, to love your own flesh, that is your wife and family. And let a wife see that she not dishonor Christ as he is to be found in being united to her husband in a selfless union of holiness. For if any of you disrupt the unity of your own family by not loving or not respecting, then you do not reverence Christ.
If the interpretive points employed in this suggested paraphrase are tenable, one point in particular, if accepted, may allow us to translate the meaning of this passage for modern marriages. If the “headship” of a husband in marriage is indeed a “natural power” of some sort, and thus a “natural” thing - that is, created by God as good, but most definitely corrupted by sin - then we may in fact take the liberty of avoiding discussion of this “power” (“authority” is the same ancient word) in favor of using our modern language or rights and responsibilities. Let us operate on the principle that we must accept the supernatural as the means of healing the natural. If St. Paul’s “headship” (whatever it means) is natural, but thrown off-kilter by sin, it will be restored by grace, so long as we accept God’s supernatural plan in Christ. As it is restored in Christ’s plan (not according to our notions), then one need not worry about painting a detailed picture of how a husband exercises this “natural power,” or how one defers to it or accepts it. For the key point here is that however this is specifically done, it can’t be done perfectly without first deferring to the grace of Christ. Put Christ first, and the rest will fall in place (“naturally” we may say).
    A further reason to take this approach is found in the simplicity of the original text. St. Paul began by stating every Christian should “submit” to their natural authorities out of reverence for Christ, yet he does not repeat the word in his survey of head-body relationships. Where he could have repeated “wives submit” as a command, he only says “wives… to husbands as to the Lord.” In contrast, what words are repeated over and over in the passage? “For Christ; as Christ; to Christ!” It is not just the word “submit” that expects to fill in the ellipses; it is the whole first sentence. If there is present some theological “argument” trying to root out insubordination against family cultural norms, the argument itself has been relegated to Christ and his Church as the supreme rule. “If any should accept the authority of another, then do it for reverence of Christ, and not for any other ultimate reason!”
    Here then let us put aside even the question of Christ’s authority, knowing that, in our terms, he has taken responsibility for our salvation.  We will take the approach of paraphrasing Ephesians 5:21-33 in general terms of marital responsibilities, speaking of “gifts” as a grace-implied euphemism for personal “strengths.”
Every person, married or unmarried, has been given their own gifts and responsibilities, and each must fulfill their own without usurping those of others, as a way of serving Christ, our loving savior. Wives put all your gifts at the service of your husband. For the Lord has given him responsibilities which you yourself cannot fulfill. Thus model your relationship on that of Christ and his bride, the Church. Christ dispossessed himself of every gift for the good of the Church, which is, for the salvation it is members. As gratefully, therefore, as the church receives the gifts and graces of the Lord Jesus, encourage that care for your family which your husband provides in the specific ways that God has enabled him. Husbands, you must do everything that you can for your wife out of Christ-like love, putting your gifts to whatever task Christ calls you to. Christ gave you an example of sacrifice when he “handed himself over” for the Church, “to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word.” He paid for the holiness of the Church that he might make her his bride, united so closely that they are as one body. You are “one flesh” with your wife, and loving her is the only Christ-like way that you can fulfill yourself for Christ’s sake. Thus both you and she may fulfill your responsibilities for your family with the gifts God has given you. So the simplest way I can summarize this, if husbands and wives seek to be faithful to the grace of the mystery of Christ's redemption, is that a husband should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband.
Having used so many words to come to a perspective which does not get caught up in the ancient fascination with power and authority (so much ink being spilled on the “head of the household” question), I will dismiss the whole project of this interpretation to conclude on another passage of St. Paul. The Christological hymn of Philippians 2 has already been referenced here. In our culture I think that is a much better passage overall for directing either engaged or married couples in the ways of holiness and happiness. We see in the end, here, that while the ancient world was obsessed with power and authority as the only worthwhile “gifts,” the real issue then is the same now: humility. We recognize many more kinds of strengths and gifts today. That is great. Yet, how can we deal with the fact that to each is given different gifts, and that in terms of strengths and weakness, we are most certainly NOT all equal? And where husbands and wives feel threatened by gifts that the other has been given - be it physical strength, verbal persuasiveness, personal charisma, a brilliant intellect, or an unrivaled wit - the only answer is for all to be convinced that their gifts must be used in service of Christ. All must discern their responsibilities in light of the Gospel, and try their best to fulfill them! And each should be more concerned about discerning one’s own gifts and responsibilities, more than worrying about whether the other is fulfilling theirs.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

10 Reasons to have your marriage blessed by the Catholic Church

10 Reasons to have your marriage blessed by the Catholic Church
10: Because you need God in your life. Period. When is the last time you did something with the specific intention of becoming a more devoted Christian, and regretted it? Even if you don’t really understand the Catholic Church’s idiosyncrasies about marriage, how on earth could another Catholic, religious, ceremony for your marriage not be a beneficial expression of faith? Keep reading and you may be inspired.
9: Because you get to renew your wedding vows before a priest or deacon. How can you object to this? Why should you renew your vows before a priest or a deacon? Well…
8: Because you did not receive the sacrament of matrimony if you were married “outside” the Church. Yes, it is true. A Catholic recevies and enjoys the grace of matrimony as a sacrament only when they are marred in the presence of a Catholic priest or deacon, or when they obtain the Catholic Church’s express permission for their wedding in a non-Catholic ceremony. A Catholic marrying outside of these two circumstances, a ceremony with the JP, or even another religious ceremony, only results in a civil marriage. The Catholic Church recognizes that this commitment can be good, but this goodness does not approach that contained in the sacraments of Jesus Christ in his Church. When we speak loosely about having your marriage “blessed” by the Church, we really mean that you are participating in the rite to receive, finally, the sacrament of matrimony as Christian spouses.
7: Because the priest (or deacon) really will give an extra blessing, in addition to witnessing your vows and officiating at the ceremony. Here is a snippet of one of the blessing prayers: “may her husband entrust his heart to her, so that, acknowledging her as his equal and his joint heir to the life of grace, he may show her due honor and cherish her always with the love that Christ has for his Church”!
6: Because you are not supposed to receive communion as a Catholic if you went and got married without the sacrament. Think about it. There are only seven sacraments. We can’t just throw one under the bus and expect to have no consequences on the other six. Baptism, Communion, Confirmation (we hope), then Matrimony; they all work together.  Whether one skipped matrimony intentionally, or was just ignorant of the requirements for receiving the sacrament matrimony, either way it is worth respecting their proper order and relationship so as to get back on track. It does not mean you are excommunicated. The Church does not say you are a mortal sinner going to hell. The Church will continue to offer the sacraments, but you should receive them in a way that respects the way the Church gives them. Go get your marriage blessed, and you can get back on track for communion.
5: Because confession is also on-hold for those who are married outside the Church. Sure, it is not likely that someone will be looking for confession when they weren’t close enough to their priests to fulfill the requirements described in reason number 8, but just in case anyone was wondering.
4: Because you need the virtue of chastity, even in marriage. Sound odd? It shouldn’t. A marriage in which no virtue of chastity existed would not last a week. It would not even get off the ground, day-one, if one spouse did not have even the simple desire to maintain with the other spouse sexual exclusivity. That is a manifestation of purity right there, and God wants this fidelity to grow. Maybe you are not the super-religious type in your sexual ideals. Those who skipped the Catholic ceremony are certainly not practicing Natural Family Planning on the grounds that it is the “Church endorsed method” of virtuous family planning. But I guarantee you that something in the Church’s vision of chastity is going to speak to you if you approach the sacrament of matrimony with a faithful disposition.
3: Because God wants to turn your life upside-down in the best possible way. Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior, wants to enter into your life and marriage in a whole new way. The presence of Christ in the sacrament of matrimony is unique and fantastic. He takes a the bond that exists between two spouses, and he charges with his own strength, grace, and virtues. He not only begins to offer new graces for your married life when you receive the sacrament of matrimony, but he offers such grace that, if you are open to it, he will transform your marriage into an example of love so great that believers will look to you as one of the greatest visible examples of Christ’s infinite love.
2: Thinking along those lines, have your marriage blessed because of Louis and Zelie, Isadore and Maria, Montinus and Maxima, Henry and Cunegund. Why are these strange names given as a reason to have your marriage blessed by the Church? Because they were all husband-wife couples who both became canonized saints. They are happier now than any other couple, because the grace of matrimony helped them to become saints in heaven, so great that their virtue has been remembered by the whole Church.
1: So let me end with the greatest Christian Spouses ever: Mary, and Joseph. They got married prior to the existence of the Catholic Church, so, were they joined by the sacrament, or not? Well, let’s just say the grace in the middle of their marriage had a name: “Jesus!” That is what the sacrament of matrimony is all about. If you don’t need Jesus, then you don’t need the sacrament of matrimony. But if you do need Jesus, then you need to do everything you can to get closer to him. The sacrament of matrimony should now be evident as one of those ways for every married Catholic.