The Gospel passage today, People of God, refers to the Eucharist and continues last Sunday’s reading; Jesus is addressing certain Jews who, quite understandably with their background, found the words of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of Man as repulsive and unacceptable. However, in our Mass today, the continuation of that previous Gospel reading has been put in close proximity to St. Paul’s teaching that, in Christian marriage, the wife must respect and obey her husband who, in his turn, must love and cherish his wife. Let us therefore take up Jesus’ words with dissenting disciples and allow them to illuminate St. Paul’s teaching on the true nature and purpose of Christian marriage and our appreciation of it.
Does this offend you? What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.
St. Paul has become a “bête noir” for modern feminists who regard his teaching as being degrading for women; but then, what sort of women do those feminists have in mind, women of the world or Christian women? The devil’s sin is pride, and the easiest and most acceptable way of leading human beings astray is for him to give them a shot or two of pride into the arm, so to speak. We Christians, therefore, need to be very careful whom we allow to influence us; and, at times, we have to examine the motives of those who put themselves forward as leaders because we cannot allow ourselves to be guided by the thinking of people whose stated aims are inevitably and essentially worldly: gilded over with so-called acceptable pride; polished and presented for easy assimilation and popularity; promoted by, and serving as safety-valve for, deep-seated emotional tendencies to self-assertion.
Let us then look at Paul’s teaching:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord: as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. (Eph 5:22, 24)
The feminists say, of course: what woman could accept that?
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, nourish and cherish (them), just as the Lord does the Church.
The boys, macho-men, likewise respond immediately with: what man would want that?
Women will, of course, accuse many men of violence; and men, likewise, will complain of most women’s uncontrolled emotionalism. However the prime target against which the feminists’ inveigh is what they see as the humiliation of woman in Christian marriage, while the boys target the suffocating bondage and responsibility with which they imagine Christian family life would stifle them.
If those views were the only possible interpretations of St. Paul’s teaching it would be very difficult indeed to understand how it has come about that Christianity has raised the status and dignity of women more than any other religious faith. How could a religion preaching the so-called humiliation of woman in marriage have lifted up the status, and confirmed the dignity, of women to such an extent? On the other hand, if the bondage of responsibilities and chastity were so objectionable and unsatisfying for men -- as the boys say -- how could it be that Christian family life has shown itself to be the stable bed-rock of Western, indeed world-wide, democratic society?
As you can see, so much depends on how you look at things. That is why we heard in the first reading Joshua, the leader of the Israelites after Moses, saying to the assembled people, “Make up your minds”:
Now therefore, fear the LORD, serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. And if it seems evil to you to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD." So the people answered and said: "Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods.
Many of our troubles today are largely the due to people who, like the Israelites of old, publicly say they don’t want to forsake the Lord, but who, in their hearts, neither hold Him in fear, nor are willing to discipline their ambitions or their bodies so as to serve Him in sincerity and truth.
Jesus, in the Gospel reading, knew some such people who found His teaching hard because they were unwilling to commit themselves entirely to Him:
When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, "Does this offend you? What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.
What if you see the Son of Man ascending to heaven? Can’t you understand where I am leading you? You will see me ascend as your leader to the place where I am preparing a place for all who will follow me. I am not preparing you to be My disciples for a mere seventy or eighty years’ life in this sinful set-up; I have been sent to help you become, in Me, children of God, My heavenly Father. I am, indeed, sent to make you -- by the Spirit I will send to you -- His children able to live for ever in an eternal home prepared for you in His Kingdom; but for that you have to be willing to trust me.
Just as there are many rooms in the Father’s Kingdom where Jesus is preparing to receive His faithful disciples, so too, here on earth, there are many ways of learning discipleship and some, indeed, are better than others, as both Mary and Martha learnt; but all acceptable ways involve loving God and one’s neighbour, serving, imitating, Jesus, and obeying His Spirit in the Church.
Whatever way we choose, the whole of our life as Christians is a time of preparation for our heavenly home, a preparation whereby we are gradually purged and cleansed of our sins and formed in the likeness of Jesus by His Holy Spirit. It is not a time for the pre-eminent pursuit of worldly vanity and pleasure, nor is it a worldly process we can monitor and appraise to our own satisfaction – even Mary had not been able to observe the full extent of her Son’s manly spiritual development before His heavenly Father. The progress of life on earth for a disciple of Jesus is a Spiritual work, a work carried out by the Holy Spirit; and it is a faith work, a work that can only be done for those who live by faith in Jesus Christ and in that way open themselves up to His Holy Spirit and allow Him to work, even secretly, in them.
And so marriage, the Christian relationship between man and woman, is a most important relationship for the training of God’s children; it cannot be a relationship which is private to the two concerned, that is, a free-love association. Marriage is the union of man and woman offered to Jesus, to be lived according to His teaching and for His purposes; and the words of St. Paul today are of supreme importance and indeed striking beauty in this respect. The wife is to honour and obey her husband so that, becoming a Christian mother she can not only teach but also gently lead her children to, and accustom them in, authentic obedience to their father. Were the father alone in requiring obedience from his children, he would almost inevitably be thought to be demanding it, and consequently considered as domineering. The husband is to love his wife so that he can indeed lead and guide his children in tender love and consideration for their mother; for if she were alone in seeking such love she would easily be thought of as neurotic. Christian children have to learn obedience and disciplined love in the home and there is no more beautiful way than following mother in honouring and obeying father, and joining with father in expressing love and gratitude to mum. Thus the father can, and indeed must, rightly insist that his children love their mother; the wife can and should ensure that her children honour and respect their father by obedience.
Christian marriage is a privileged preparation ground: it continues and potentially glorifies God’s work of creation, it serves and promotes the salvation of the spouses by forming them for His heavenly family. Every Christian blessing comes to us through the Cross; consequently, in the whole of Christian life there is the Cross, but as we see in Jesus, the Cross is ultimately something which a Christian -- as a sincere and true disciple of Jesus -- can learn to embrace, with the Lord, for love of the Father; it is something intended and able to lift us up from the earth to heaven. Just to put it briefly in answer to the feminists and to the lads, Christian marriage is meant to help a Christian man and woman grow in humility on the one hand, and in true, self-less, love on the other hand, both of which demand responsible and enduring commitment, together with willing and patient sacrifice. To enable them both to do this, the Christian bond of marriage bestows a share in divine love, a gift of grace which enables those who want to receive it strength to live in a way which is more than human; and that is precisely why the feminists and the lads cannot understand Christian marriage and Christian love, because it is for those destined for heaven, not for those intent on, and hoping to be satisfied, with the vanity of human pride or the satiety of worldly pleasures.
In all this however, argument is of limited value, for as Jesus said:
Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.
That does not mean that the Father denies anyone the opportunity or the ability to come to Jesus, but simply that He will not force it upon anyone; while those who do come to discipleship, must realize that it is a gift of God, not their own work.
As in His days in Palestine, Jesus’ message faithfully proclaimed by Mother Church today, still displeases many:
From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.
However, contrary to the impression given by over-anxious disciples at times, Jesus does not depend on human backing, He does not find it necessary to count “bums on seats”, as the saying goes, in order to be able to trust His Father, and so:
Jesus said to the twelve, "Do you also want to leave?"
In reply Peter said what all true believers since then have repeated wholeheartedly:
Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.