Paul’s commentary in his letter to the Ephesians, chapter 5:21-33, can be baffling to the lay reader, because Paul cannot seem to make up his mind as to which is the actual object and which is the analogy in his commentary on marriage, Christ and the Church. It is a famous example of Paul’s circular syntax, which has its own unique logic despite the the lack of linguistic precision:
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 (also) 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. In any case, each one of you should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband.
Paul’s comment, “this is a great mystery,” certainly captures the sense of the passage. And, what, exactly is the mystery – that man and woman are one flesh, or that the Church and Christ are one body? The Patristic Father, John Chrysostom, has his own interpretation on the parallel analogies between man & woman, on the one hand, and Christ and the Church, on the other.
His analogy comes from Genesis 2:20-25:
So the LORD God cast a deep sleep on the man, and while he was asleep, he took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. The LORD God then built up into a woman the rib that he had taken from the man. When he brought her to the man, the man said: “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; This one shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of ‘her man’ this one has been taken.” That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body. The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame.
John has written that the account concerning the creation of woman from man’s side is an early prototype for the relationship between Christ and the Church. According to St. John, Christ’s death on the cross… his lance wound, and the blood and water he shed… gave birth to the Church. Just as woman came from man’s side, the Church has its origins in Christ’ shedding his own blood and water from the wound in his side. John sees, as does St. Paul, the commonality of the two-become-one image that unites both man and woman, and Christ and the Church.
Here is St. John Chrysostom’s instructional from the “Catechesis 3:13-19,” as translated in the Irish Liturgy of the Hours for Good Friday.
The Power of the Blood of Christ
Do you wish to know of the power of Christ’s blood? Let us go back to the ancient accounts of what took place in Egypt, where Christ’s blood is foreshadowed.
Moses said: ‘Sacrifice a lamb without blemish and smear the doors with its blood.’ What does this mean? Can the blood of a sheep without reason save man who is endowed with reason? Yes, Moses replies, not because it is blood, but because it is a figure of the Lord’s blood. So today if the devil sees, not the blood of the figure smeared on the doorposts, but the blood of the Reality smeared on the lips of the faithful, which are the doors of the temple of Christ, with all the more reason will he draw back.
Do you wish to learn from another source the power of this blood? See where it began to flow, from what spring it flowed down from the cross, from the Master’s side. The gospel relates that when Christ had died and was hanging on the cross, a soldier approached him and pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out water and blood. The one was a symbol of Baptism, the other of the mysteries. That soldier, then, pierced his side: he breached the wall of the holy temple, and I found the treasure and acquired the wealth. Similarly with the lamb. The Jews slaughtered it in sacrifice, and I gathered the fruit of that sacrifice — salvation.
‘There came out from his side water and blood.’ Dearly beloved, do not pass the secret of this great mystery by without reflection. For I have another interpretation to give you. I said that Baptism and the mysteries were symbolized in that blood and water. It is from these two that the holy Church has been born ‘by the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit’ , by Baptism and by the mysteries. Now the symbols of Baptism and the mysteries came from his side. It was from his side, then, that Christ formed the Church, as from the side of Adam he formed Eve.
That is why in his account of the first man, Moses has the words, ‘bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh’, giving us a hint here of the Master’s side. For as at the time God took a rib from Adam’s side and formed woman, so Christ gave us blood and water from his side and formed the Church. Just as then he took the rib while Adam was in deep sleep, so now he gave the blood and water after his death.
Have you understood how Christ has united his bride, the Church, to himself? Have you seen with what kind of food he feeds us all? By the same food we are formed and fed. As a mother feeds her child with her own blood and milk, so too Christ continually feeds those whom he has begotten, with his own blood.