Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

Love Your Wife as Christ Loved the Church - Part I

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"Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her" (Ephesians 5:25). It seems that with these words, God lifts the ground and essence of marital love far beyond the standards of the world. It is a very sad fact that most people enter the marital bond with the intention of enhancing their own lives or increasing their personal pleasure; and it is not an exaggeration to say that all people enter marriage expecting some form of self-satisfaction. And by this behavior we are simply implementing the common thought-processes used in everyday business—we choose this specific school, or that particular career, based on the advantages that will accrue to us. But in marriage, the meaning and purpose are completely reversed: we are to seek the advantages and well-being of another, instead of, or even in opposition to, our own.

Now in this world, there is only one symbol, one insignia, or one resource, that perfectly embodies this self-sacrificial spirit: the Cross. Every other form of non-Christian, philosophical, or "enlightened" altruism has concealed in its aims and pursuits some measure of self-advantage. Is it easy to imagine a society of ego-loving, vegetarian, liberal youth who campaign for "civil liberties", doing so purely for the love of virtue? Can the billionaire philanthropist who gains substantial tax breaks for "donating" to the poor be considered a true lover of man? But it is very easy to do good and feign piety in this world of exteriors, without a trace of that goodness reflected on the inside. But the Cross encounters us with a wholly other principle: the idea of "offering up" myself, or "losing" myself (in Christ's words)1, for the sake of another, without any foreseeable gain to myself.

God clearly commands a man to make his love for his wife an image of Christ's love for His Church.2 And in saying, "...and gave Himself for her," St. Paul intentionally points to the Cross. The very idea of following and serving a God who "gave Himself up" for His people was strikingly new in St Paul's day. The pagan gods were a jumbled pantheon of super-beings who themselves existed on the base principle of self-gratification; and even Yahweh had sadly been portrayed by the Jewish rabbis to be a strict and demanding Lawgiver who lived on high. But in Christianity, God had come down to earth, took up His abode in humanity's poor towns, and finally submitted Himself to death—all for our sake. The early Christians were constantly imbued with this new idea of self-sacrifice; it had penetrated every atom of their being, formed every thought, and guided every action, as is sufficiently apparent in the annals of martyrs and confessors.3 Quite naturally, then, St. Paul would recall their minds to the Cross when discussing marital love.

For what else could be the basis of a man's love for his wife? The early Christians learned not to admire the outward appearance, but the inner beauty of a quiet and gentle spirit (1 Peter 3:4). They were taught not to allow the pernicious love of money to reside in their hearts but rather righteousness and godliness (1 Timothy 6:11). They were to share the life-purpose of their Master: not to be served, but to serve (Matthew 20:27). And the one element which summarized and expressed all these things together was the Cross. If a man in the first century wanted to consider himself a disciple of Jesus, if He wanted to bear the honored name of "Christian", then in all things he needed to bear his cross—especially in the sacred bond called marriage.

And a man living in modern times must ask himself the same question: can a deep and enduring love for my wife rest on any other basis than the cross? Can I be infatuated with her looks forever? Will I consider her laugh charming forever? Can the motivation to treat my wife lovingly, kindly, and graciously run merely on emotional steam forever? In each of these cases the answer must be admitted to be a round and solid "no". And here we achieve a very clear insight on how diametrically opposed the world's ideas are to the mind of God.

The world strives to make the good marriage appear as the theoretical union (not spiritual but sexual) of two beautiful, intelligent, and prosperous individuals living an exciting and adventurous life together. But it is a false image. Satan's insidious deceit becomes apparent in such caricatures after just a little examination. The trap lies in the very "image" of the good marriage: for the quality and genuineness of a truly good marriage cannot be "seen" at all. The goodness of a marriage resides instead in the private and personal knowledge of two humble souls who have submitted to one another's needs and desires and ultimately to God's plan for their lives.

And most of all, the good marriage thrives when the husband resolves to bear his cross. The wife unquestionably has her duties to fulfill for the marriage's success; however, as is the case between Christ and the Church, the husband must take the leading role in initiating, supporting, and strengthening the marriage. And as Christ performed all these tasks for His Bride through His nailing on the Cross, so must the husband follow a similar course. What his "cross" in marriage is requires a separate essay to discuss—although every man who honestly examines his marriage may form a good idea of what it is—but, in short, it is the laying down of my desires, my needs, and even my health, for the sake of that which makes her healthy and happy.

1 Matt 16:24,25
2 Eph 5:25
3 As illustrated in, e.g., the Acts, Patristic records, and the Synaxarion

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