“‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:31-2).
This mystery is a profound one. Where is the mystery in our discussions of the New Testament passages collectively known as the “household codes”? Our American culture is so preoccupied with winners and losers, consumerist “choice” and legal technicalities. Who comes first, who gets to decide, who goes on top, who gets the bigger piece, where are the loopholes? Most discussions of these passages of Scripture in the current Christian “blogosphere” reflect these concerns, and the tone of the arguments reflects the fierceness of a war for dominance. Even when someone attempts to drag the discussion back into the spiritual realm, another voice is quick to pipe up anxiously dragging it back to the drudgery of legalism and competition. So are you saying women should be pastors? So are you saying women shouldn’t work outside the home? What about this extreme situation? What about that proof text?
But this mystery is a profound one. And the Lutheran impulse has always been to back away from the scholastic hair-splitting and works righteousness legalistic list-making and recognize the mystery. We must accept the limits of our human ability to control and comprehend, and recover some sense of awe. Marriage is not a machine or system, an invention or blueprint for a building. It is an icon of Christ and the Church. As such, it can only point toward a greater mystery. Let us contemplate the implications.
In the beginning, we were the whole and undivided Image of God; meant to be one flesh, naked and unashamed. Since the Fall, we have been at war. Men and women, at war with one another. At war within our own sexes, at war within ourselves, with our desires, our needs; our inclination to do evil and our longing for good. We are not together like we once were. Too often we are apart, at odds, unable to understand one another across the divide of sex and sin. When we do come together, it is often with strife and suffering, conflict and defeat, violence and fear. This is not how it was meant to be.
As Augustine wrote and Luther affirmed, the shape of sin is a human folded in on him or herself. Incurvatus, thus, the sex divide deepens as men and women begin to see the other sex as the source of their problems and the obstacle to their desires, and retreat into a more rigid inward bend of selfishness. Men apart from women, women apart from men, humanity incomplete and isolated, the Imago Dei shattered; this is the beginning of hell. While individuals of course may vary, it is impossible not to notice that there is a distinct type of hell formed by men apart from women, and another type of hell formed by women apart from men.
In the hell of men, there is a panoply of perversions; anything you desire can and should be yours. Pornography on big screens all around the house, with the variations of degradation limited only by the depths of depravity and the laws of physics. Sex is everywhere and loneliness, not love, is its natural companion. Violence is the way the hierarchy is sorted out, might makes right. Women are objects, children are irrelevant. Part frat house, part gay bath house, part Stanford Prison Experiment, this is the hell that men make.
In the hell of women, the exterior looks far more peaceful, but within there is no trust. Betrayal is a constant, and here, too, loneliness is just beneath the surface. Fear, too, even to the point of paranoia, as groups of allies splinter and re-splinter and there is never a clear boundary between friend and foe. Doubt, second-guessing, indecision. Competition is a constant, but it is never acknowledged. The violence is psychological, a constant low-grade torment of the one targeted that always stays just subdued enough that she can be convinced she is imagining it, persisting until she is driven mad. Children are objects, dolls to be dressed or cast aside; men are at best useful idiots. Sniping, sneering, and snarking are the sounds to be heard. This is the hell women make.
Trapped in these hells, turned in on ourselves, men and women then dream up delusions about the power we might have over our condition and, importantly, over the opposite sex. All of this is futile, of course, but it occupies a lot of time and energy and always has. All the scheming to tame the shrew and smash the family; all the seducing and conquering; all the misogynist jokes and passive aggression; all the pick up artists and social constructionists; all attempts to put the pieces back together without surrendering the selfishness, or to destroy the template and escape the pain of failure.
Above all else, we always seek to dominate, and this goes for both women and men. In various eras of history, one may be more noticeable or successful than the other, and the methods vary with the times. But it is against this endless backdrop of mutual attempts at domination—Artemis cults and tyrannical husbands in the various forms both of these things take throughout history—that all biblical attempts to restore the icon of Christ and the Church must be read.
We are iconoclasts in the worst way, we rebellious men and women, hating and fearing one another, treating one another like enemies, seeing each other only as means to an end, scheming to overpower and reign over each other. It was not meant to be this way.
And so we are given, in the Gospel, a better idea. The image is restored to wholeness. And again and again—this is a profound mystery—this comes in the form of radical, total submission. Fiat mihi, the Virgin, Icon of the Church, speaks and the redemption of all humanity is set into motion, let it be done to me according to Thy word. Later on a dark night in the garden, the Savior Himself, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” For Christ “humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” The terrifying trust of the fiat leads to Christ’s words, in the last moment, “Father into your hands I commit my spirit,” and with total surrender and submission unto death on a cross, true freedom finally comes to be.
“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” In the Cantata (BWV 49) written around Matthew 22 and Ephesians 5, J.S. Bach has Christ the Bridegroom calling to the Church with words evoking the Song of Songs. “I go forth and seek with longing for you, my dove, my loveliest bride…I have loved you for ever and ever, and therefore I draw you to Me.” He goes forth from his Father and seeks us lost sinners with longing, and this, this is a profound mystery.
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” How can anyone read this and not be stunned with the gravity of what is demanded? A total sacrifice, not my will, but thine, be done. A humbling unto death, even death on the cross. Here St. Paul addresses the male tendency to find violent solutions, the desire to conquer and dominate. No, no domination must occur, only a helpless lamb to the sacrifice, given over without reservation and with total trust and vulnerability.
“…That he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.” To be, as Luther said, a “little Christ,” in his vocation as husband and father. “That he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” No more objectifying, no more demeaning, no more using as a means to a selfish, sordid end. No fault-finding, no assessing on a rubric of one to ten. This is a profound mystery.
To be asked to submit to one who loves like this (curb the compulsive second-guessing), and to respect him (can the snark), seems a light burden in comparison. And indeed, I think it is entirely reasonable to argue that the intention is only for the wife to respect and obey insofar as the husband was living up to this exacting standard of godliness. To say this is not to open another can of legalistic worms and demands to define the exact parameters of loopholes unless one is seriously determined to escape the main point. That point being, of course the great mystery we have to consider here. The two sexes by definition separated and alienated, somehow resolved, somehow repaired, somehow one flesh again.
“But what does this look like in real life?” It looks like an icon of Christ and the Church. If you can see the icon, if there is a window to heaven, a sign pointing to something greater, then the image is intact. “But who does the dishes? Who decides about moving to a new city? What if they want different cities?” Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things.
“For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.” This is what God desires, the Imago Dei restored, one flesh, naked and unashamed. This, like the Eucharist, a foretaste of the feast to come. “My faith itself has drawn me here,” sings the soul in Bach’s wedding feast, “Thus My heart remains entwined with yours, thus I will to you be engaged and betrothed in eternity,” answers Christ the Bridegroom. This earthly longing, this union of one flesh, this is only the beginning. We are rehearsing our fiats, learning to surrender, unfolding from ourselves, dying and rising again and again.
My meal is prepared
and my wedding table ready,
only my bride is not yet present.