By Abigail Jaeger, MS
Summertime is the season of weddings. Over the last few weeks I’ve attended the weddings of three friends. At the most recent wedding, the second reading chosen was the eyeroll inducing passage: “Wives be submissive to your husbands.” (Colossians 3:18) While I have been taught the deep theological meaning associated with those verses, I am filled with anxiety when this reading is chosen because the words are commonly misconstrued as a male-dominating dictate rather than a beautiful request to show mutual love, care, and sacrifice to one another. Fortunately, the bride and groom included an explanation of those verses, and it drew me into contemplation about the real meaning of the sacrament of matrimony.
All three of the couples chose the wedding feast at Cana as their Gospel reading, and I could not help but draw the connection between the two readings. In fact, St. Paul’s words in Colossians are lived out in St. John’s Gospel through the lives of Mary and Jesus. It is in this Gospel that we are given an example of what St. Paul meant when he asked wives to “be submissive to their husbands,” and for husbands to “love their wives as Christ loved the Church.” When Mary approached Jesus and asked him to help the couple who had run out of wine (a shameful embarrassment), she was challenging him while continuing to be submissive to Him.
To be submissive does not mean to lack a voice, and it certainly does not mean to be inferior. Within marriage, it means that the wife is entrusting herself and her concerns to her husband because she respects and loves him. She trusts in his ability to make decisions that are for the ultimate good of each other. Mary prodded Jesus into action, which he would not have taken if not for her. He was hesitant, and Mary did not push the issue but told the servants to “do whatever He tells you.” She did not tell him what to do, but rather insisted that He use His power for the good of the couple and everyone else celebrating the wedding feast. She trusted in Jesus’ ability to lead and make the right decision. Because of His deep love for His mother, Jesus willed it complete. The submissiveness is meant to go both ways, as is demonstrated in that passage. Jesus was still the leader, yet through Mary’s confidence and faith in His ability, He was encouraged to perform His very first miracle.
An alternate wedding passage, the prayer of Tobit and Sarah (Tobit 8) portrayed another example of the way in which men and women are called to be mutually submissive to one another. Sarah had several husbands who were killed upon marrying her, and she was incredibly unhappy. When Tobit asked to take her as his wife, her father even dug a grave for him in preparation of his death. Nevertheless, Tobit faithfully asked her to trust him and pray with him on their wedding night. Tobit demonstrated the need for the couple to be mutually submissive to God and His will primarily, and he led his bride in serving her and praying with her. For the first time, Sarah’s groom survived the wedding night, and they were permitted to live peacefully together, as their prayer requested.
The common thread between all of these passages is the need to be faithful and obedient. The sacrament of matrimony is a vocation, and as such it is intended to be a calling from God to enter into communion with Him through one’s relationship with another person, their spouse. In every instance with the disciples, Jesus simply asked them to trust in Him and His path for them. He essentially asked them to be submissive to Him, and he was accordingly submissive to the Heavenly Father, as evidenced by his plea while in Gethsemane that, “If it be possible, let this cup pass.” Submissiveness can be understood as synonymous with obedience, an obedience which flows out of love.
As Dietrich BonHoeffer pointed out, “The man who disobeys cannot believe for only he who obeys can believe” (Callings….Loc 5871 of 6817). Obedience is reliant upon faith and vice versa, since one who is obedient is indicating their trust in the one he is obedient to. If there is a lack of faith, there would be no cause for obedience. Submissiveness, in this case, requires knowing the person and choosing to put faith in their ability to live out their vocation to the best of their ability. In essence, the vocation to marriage asks for the simplest thing: to say “I do” to God’s will. One does not know what life will look like when entering into marriage, and thus it requires faith and obedience to willfully engage in a lifestyle that is merely a potentiality.
However, there is peace in fulfilling God’s will, and the couple who chooses to have faith and obedience is given the grace to overcome the challenges that come into their lives. Through abandoning themselves to the will of God, there is freedom in submissiveness. There is no need for worry or anxiety, because faith teaches that He will provide, and obedience makes it so that they will not stray away from His truth. Therefore, it is clear that the sacrament of matrimony does, in fact, require mutual submissiveness of the couple to one another, and yet ultimately to God. While this requires faith and obedience, it is not without abundant blessing in return. The sacrament of matrimony lived out in such a way truly embodies the way in which Christ loved His Church, died for love.
Abigail is an alumna of the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, a graduate school that combines the best of modern psychology with a Catholic understanding of the human person. You can learn more about the Institute for the Psychological Sciences at www.ipsciences.edu