21Sunday Ordinary Time
A Homily - B Cycle - 2002-2003
First Reading - Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b
Psalm - 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21
Second Reading - Ephesians 5:21-32 or 5:2a, 25-32
Gospel - John 6:60-69
St. Paul to the Ephesians 5:21-32
Wives and husbands, be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body. As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. So husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.
When I was a college student, a friend of mine and I were attending Mass on Sunday during Christmas break in New York. The second reading was today's second reading from St. Paul's Letter to the Ephesians. As we followed along in our missalettes my friend and I noticed that the lector took it upon herself to start omitting lines from the second reading that she didn't like. My friend and I were both astonished and confused. Why would she do such a thing? Wasn't her role to simply read the reading? That started me on a quest to figure out why St. Paul wrote what he wrote and what he meant and what it should mean for us.
What I'd like to do today by way of this homily is to explain this reading to you and I also want to touch another topic related to the role of women in the Church vis a vis our all-male priesthood and why the Holy Father has taught that the ordination of priests is reserved to men alone. Please note that my purpose here is not to offend or disparage anyone - I simply want all of you to have the benefit of knowing why we believe what we believe and that there is a great freedom in knowing that what we teach and believe is designed and guided by the Holy Spirit. I invite you to embrace this truth as Catholics in a world that scoffs at our religion.
Our second reading is one of the most misunderstood readings in all of Scripture. We hear that "s" word - "subordinate" and we all gasp. We almost treat the word "subordinate" as if it were vulgar or profane. Every time this reading is proclaimed, I always notice how some of the men elbow their wives and look at them as if to say, "See, even St. Paul says you should be subordinate to me." Of course, the husbands always get a nice slap or return elbow in the rib cage. So, let's examine what St. Paul has to say. I think that you will find that the criticism leveled against St. Paul here that claims that this reading is historically dated, is absolutely false.
The first thing that he says is that we must all be subordinate to each other out of reverence for Christ. In other words, we put ourselves in service of others - to be there for them; to be brothers and sisters in the Lord. What St. Paul is leading up to is the fact that in marriage, the love of husband and wife is a symbol of the love that Christ has for His Bride, the Church. In other words, a married couple's love is much more than the love that they express for each other - it is a love that is to be representative of Christ's love for His Church. When St. Paul says that wives should be subordinate to their husbands, we have to see how the Church is subordinate to Christ. The Church, in her subordinate love, is no slave of Christ, nor is subordination a position of being second-class. Rather, the subordinate love that the Church strives to maintain is one of open acceptance of the sacrificial love of her spouse, the Lord Jesus. We even see this in the theology of the human body. The female anatomy is designed to receive love; the male anatomy is designed to give love. So it is with Christ and the Church. Christ loves his bride, the Church, by dying to Himself and living for Her. In the same way, a husband is to die to himself and give himself as gift to his wife. If you consider HOW Christ died, the men get a pretty raw deal. It's not very pretty. St. Paul is not suggesting that wives be the slaves of their husbands - he's expanding the love of husband and wife to be larger than just the couple - he insists that the couple imitate the love Christ has for His Church, His Bride. As it turns out, the subordinate love of the wife means accepting the love of the husband and allowing him to love her by showing his proper headship in the family. This is not a matter of raw power; rather, it's a matter of sacrificial love. The mystery of love lies in the fact that the human person only discovers who they truly are when they give themselves away as gift. That is what this is all about - the whole notion of being gift to each other in marriage.
As we know, most persons get married. In fact, priests spend the better part of their lives in service of the married vocation and of course, the single vocation as well. I would like to spend the rest of my homily explaining why the Church reserves the ordination of priest to men alone. In 1994, the Holy Father, released a document, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, on this very issue. If this topic interests you more, I invite you to read this work. The document was so intriguing, that several bishops from around the world asked the Pope whether not this teaching was binding on the faithful. The Holy See affirmed that it is and that this issue is no longer a matter for discussion. The Holy Father also warned against new groups starting in the Church that have the ordination of women as part of their hidden agenda.
At first, the prospect of an all-male priesthood seems so unjust. After all, we live in a society where both men and women can do just about anything. Either can vote, either can play professional sports, either can own property, either could be President, either can earn advanced degrees. Women and men have equal rights. Some ask, "Isn't the Church just behind the times? Isn't it just a matter of time before the Church catches up with the rest of the world?" Some ask, "How is it really possible for women to remain in the Church when they belong to such a seemingly oppressive institution?"
The problem often lies in the fact that many persons think of the priesthood as a career that one should have a right to possess if they so desire. They are mistaken. The priesthood is no career - it is a vocation, just like marriage or the single life. The very word "vocation" comes from the Latin, "vocare" which means "to call." God does the calling. When Jesus Christ, true God and true man called his first priests, the Apostles, he called only men. He ordained only men at the Last Supper. That is why the Holy Father writes that he cannot ordain women because Christ Himself did not do so and that no Pope can change the essential elements of any of the sacraments since each of the seven sacraments were instituted by Christ himself. So, no one has a right to the priesthood, as if it were a career.
We must also consider that being a priest is not a matter of personal holiness or competency per se. If it were, then Mary, Christ's mother who was conceived without sin, would have had the most legitimate claim to the priesthood. Just a week removed from the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, taken up body and soul into heaven, we know that no other creature is more exalted than she, and yet her Son did not ordain her a priest. Rather, he ordained 12 men - one betrayed, the first Pope denied three times and all but one ran from our Lord when he needed them most. It was women, most notably, Our Lady, who stood at the foot of the Cross, not men. It was women who first learned of the Resurrection. And it was a woman from whom the Savior of the world took His humanity. Yet, Christ selected men as priests. He desired that men be icons of God the Father.
Some argue that women were not selected because they would not have been listened to, since women had no place of prominence in society. Well, that's not a valid argument because no one listened to the Apostles either - they were all martyred, except for St. John. Moreover, Jesus was not bound by social convention. He had women friends like Martha and Mary; he even met with a Samaritan woman alone (highly forbidden in Jewish culture). Others argue that Jesus could not have known that the Church would suffer from a lack of priestly vocation in the 21st century, thus necessitating the ordination of women. To make such a claim is to deny that Christ was omniscient - all-knowing. To deny that is to deny his divinity. To deny His divinity means one is no longer a believer. Finally, others will complain that the Church is essentially anti-woman. That is simply not true. Ask the United Nations and the Red Cross and they will tell you that the largest provider of care to women and children worldwide is the Catholic Church, not some secular organization, but the faithful bride of Christ, caring for her children.
In the end, the ordination of men only, is not about power. It's about service. Authority in the Church has always been understood as service, not the exercise of brute force or influence. Yes, this authority has been abused in certain circles over the course of history. Yes, priests are not perfect. However, that does not change the fact our Lord Himself chose only men to be priests. That is not to say that we should not honor and respect the gifts, talents and contributions of women to the Church, but it is to say that we should subordinate ourselves to our most High God and His Son, who wished the ordination of men only. Let us pray for the grace to accept the gift of the Church and the all-male priesthood as Christ Himself designed it, not trying to re-create the Church or the ministerial priesthood in our own image. May we rejoice in the conviction that we are the only Christians who believe that not only the God-man reigns in heaven, but our Queen, the blessed Mother, a woman, is the only creature graced by God to already share in the heavenly glory, body and soul, that awaits each of us if we remain faithful to the end.
As we continue the celebration of this Holy Mass, let us give thanks for the many gifts that each of us has received; for the gift of the priesthood; for the talents and contributions of women; for the truth which the Church teaches. May we find the freedom and glory of the children of God by living in this truth and learning to love our God more deeply each day.
Praised be Jesus Christ! Now and forever, Amen!
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