'Therefore as the Church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church, and gave himself for it.' (Ephesians 5,24-25)
There are many who are surprised and even shocked on hearing this epistle read at weddings. The idea of the obedience of the wife to her husband seems to disturb modern ears. On hearing these words, many probably think of the unreasonable demands. This stereotype has, however, nothing at all to do with what the Apostle Paul means. Let us look more closely.
The ascetic purpose of marriage is to reconstitute the paradisiac life of Adam and Eve in Eden before the Fall. Therefore to understand this purpose, we must first of all bear in mind what caused them to fall from grace. Eve's sin was disobedience, disobedience to God caused through the flattery of the serpent which provoked her vanity and pride. But Adam also sinned through selfishness and pride. First he did not look after his wife, he allowed her to fall into sin through the serpent. Second he fell into sin through Eve's suggestion that he too partake of the forbidden fruit. And third when God spoke to him, he blamed everything on Eve. In other words Adam's sin consisted of not sacrificing himself for Eve. First he failed to fight off the serpent's temptation, failing to protect Eve, then he himself went along with the temptation and finally, instead of protecting Eve and assuming blame in humility for the one for whom he was responsible, he blamed the fault on her. Therefore the punishment that both received, ascetically speaking, 'fitted the crime.' Adam was to toil 'by the sweat of his brow,' to sacrifice himself in order to live, thus humbling him into repentance for his selfishness through which he allowed Eve to fall. And Eve was to suffer in childbirth, thus humbling her into repentance for her vanity through which the serpent flattered her.
Adam and Eve's state in Eden can therefore be restored if both repent of their sins, cultivating the virtues opposed to the sins into which they originally fell. To combat her disobedience, woman must seek obedience. And to combat his lack of care and self-sacrifice for woman, his lack of responsibility, man must sacrifice himself for her. This is the attempt to reconstitute that first paradisiac state. Moreover St. Paul compares the relationship between man and woman with that between Christ and the Church. The Church owes obedience to Christ, Her Head, but Christ sacrifices Himself for the Church, even unto death - this is a great mystery (Ephesians 5,32).
Is there a woman who would not obey a husband who was willing to sacrifice everything for her, being prepared even to die for her, as Christ on the Cross? Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15,13). Woman will not obey man if she is not loved, and a man who expects obedience but gives no love deserves no obedience. For obedience to one who loves is not tyranny, but freedom, for love exists only where there is freedom.
Thus through woman's obedience to man and man's loving self-sacrifice for woman, some small part of that blessed state of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden can be restored. And this is the ascetic struggle which gives meaning to marriage. And when man overcomes his selfishness and woman her vanity, then we shall glimpse that Eden once more.