Sunday Sermon for August 26, 2012, the Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Readings: Josh 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18a; Eph 5:21-32; Jn 6:60-69

In the first reading today Joshua challenges the people to choose whom they will serve. It is important to note that he realizes that it is part of our human nature to look to and serve someone greater than ourselves. In a society like ours that wants to deny God completely, people still are faced with the same challenge: choose today whom you will serve.

If, like Joshua, we proclaim that we are going to say that we will serve the Lord, then we need to be ready to accept what that entails. Sirach tells his son that when he decides to serve the Lord he is to prepare himself for many trials. In the Gospel reading today we hear about the wider body of our Lord’s disciples murmuring about His teaching regarding the Eucharist. They said: “This saying is hard. Who can accept it?”

Of all the Sacraments, the two which are most closely aligned symbolically are Matrimony and the Eucharist. The symbolism is pretty much identical but, of course, on entirely different planes. This means that if we find the teaching on the Eucharist difficult, we will probably find the teaching on marriage to be equally troubling. A quick look around the Church and the world demonstrate this to be a fact. Less than 25% of those who claim to be Catholic accept the Church’s teaching regarding the Eucharist and even fewer accept her teachings regarding marriage.

St. Paul, in the second reading, challenges husbands and wives to do what they vowed to do: love one another. He is not challenging married couples to have happy emotion toward each other, rather, he calls married people to holiness and even places upon the husband the specific task of helping his wife to become a saint, i.e., to present her in splendor, without spot or wrinkle, holy and without blemish.

This passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is one of the most misunderstood passages in all of Scripture. Due to this lack of understanding, it is also one of the most rejected and maligned passages in the Bible. The ideas of self-sacrifice, submissiveness and obedience are certainly hard for us to listen to and even harder to endure in practice. However, if we understood them properly, they would not be very difficult at all. In fact, they would become a joy.

First of all, married couples need to consider our Lord in the Eucharist. In obedience to His Father, and in obedience to the Priest at Mass, our Lord sacrifices Himself for our sake, to unite us with Himself and to make us holy. He gives Himself to us as a gift without reserve and He receives our gift of self to Him. On the day of their marriage, every couple gives themselves to one another as a gift and receives the gift of the other in return. This mutual giving and receiving is without reserve and causes a unity of persons.

This unity of persons is the result of love but now must find its expression in action. Jesus is present to us all day every day in the Blessed Sacrament; He helps us, serves us, counsels us, supports us, challenges us and gives us His grace to grow in holiness. In marriage, each person is to help, serve, counsel, support, challenge, and help the other to grow in holiness.

The selfishness of men makes it difficult for them to serve their wives and to sacrifice themselves for their wives. This is why St. Paul challenges men to do just these things. Women, in their selfishness, find it difficult to receive, preferring to control matters through a sense of giving. The weakness of both work against each other because women give and men receive, but both often for the wrong reason.

Men are called by St. Paul to love their wives whereas women are called to be subordinate to their husbands. This means that men are to serve their wives, build up their wives, sacrifice themselves for their wives. This is love. For women to be subordinate means to place themselves beneath the order given to their husbands. Put simply, they need to allow themselves to be loved or receive in love what is offered in love. What we see, as in the Eucharist, is that giving and receiving are both part of the gift, both part of love. However, both have to be done out of love, not out of selfishness.

This is why St. Paul says that married couples are to be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ. With a Christian disposition, then, to serve the other is to serve the Lord. This brings us right back to our original challenge, but hopefully with greater understanding: choose today whom you will serve.

Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit