Men Like Christ, Head of the Church

This winter, after a particularly heavy snow, I went out early in the morning, started the engine to my wife’s car, chipped inch-thick ice off its windows, and shoveled the foot-deep snow between the house and the car. As my wife was backing the car down the alleyway, I couldn’t help thinking to myself as I stood there tired and cold in the snow:  I love being married.

No, seriously.

I didn’t get married until a bit later in life, so the joys of doing things like shoveling out someone else’scar and chipping ice off someone else’s windows were denied to me during my years of bachelorhood. I’m profoundly sorry for that now, although it’s hard to see, even in retrospect, how God could have dealt with me any differently. To enjoy marriage, you have to stop being a selfish putz. And sadly, I just wasn’t ready.

I know plenty of gifted, beautiful, unmarried, young Catholic women (where were they when I was younger?), and they all have one complaint: Where are all the – no, scratch that – where are any good marriage-ready Catholic men?  I used to think they were just carping – people do like to complain. But I’ve begun to see their point. As I seek to find suitable spouses for the many young Catholic women who are earnestly looking, I’ve discovered that there really aren’t all that many available.

I love my male Catholic students. Some are just great. But even most of the great ones aren’t exactly ready for the big leagues just yet, and they know it. In fact, they know it a little too well. Most of them can’t imagine being ready for marriage for at least another ten, maybe twenty years – if ever.

That’s not keeping them from desiring sex, of course, but that’s another story. Since the notions of “marriage” and “sex” have been essentially de-coupled in our society, the lack of marriage doesn’t usually present an insurmountable problem to one’s sex drive, except for those who, (A) had a scrupulous moral upbringing (the regulating power of which often withers under the constant onslaught of television, video games, and porn); or who are, (B) exceedingly nerdy and incapable of meaningful dating. The sad truth is that, while we work endlessly to fill our children’s heads with technical knowledge about things like computers and sex, we do little or nothing to prepare them for the life of marriage.

And yet, although there’s no doubt we could – and should – do a much better job of preparing our young men for married life, I still have this nagging concern: Maybe, as a guy, you’re never ready. That is to say, maybe it’s not until you’re married that you actually begin to grow up and become a civilized, responsible adult. Maybe that’s why wise cultures in the past tried to get their young men married off relatively early in life: not primarily because of the sex instinct, but because they wanted to turn their irresponsible, muddle-headed adolescents into worthwhile productive spouses who could, for the first time in their lives, do something really meaningful that would give them some true satisfaction.

Because here’s the thing: I don’t think most men will really be happy unless they’re providing for, sacrificing for, and working selflessly for a spouse. I know it may be hard for young men to believe that, but please trust me on this: caring for a spouse is one of those things that make life worth living. Sometimes you get sex, sometimes you don’t. But what’s important is that you did something good for your wife and that her life is better off because of you. There’s something deep inside of a man that isn’t really whole until he has sacrificed for something larger than himself. And for most of us, that usually means family.

In this regard, I’m often struck at the strange ways many people treat the passages from Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 1 – which draw an analogy between “husbands” and “Christ,” on the one hand, and “wives” and “the Church,” on the other. The point of the analogy is made clear, it seems to me, in Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

Foolish pagans that we are, we often hear the phrase “Lord” or “head” and think: “I am supposed to lord it over my wife and control her, and she should submit to me.” That would be true, I suppose, if the Christian God were like Zeus or Jove, but He’s not. Where did we get it into our heads that the way Christ became “the head of the Church” was by “lording” it over the Church and demanding “submission” to His every whim?  The essential element of Christ’s lordship has to do with Christ’s selfless sacrifice on the cross for us. We, as Church, are called upon to receive that sacrifice with gratitude and love.

Wives, then, on this view, are bidden to receive this sacrifice on the part of their husbands and to understand that their husbands probably won’t be particularly fulfilled and happy until they know that they’ve accomplished something manly and responsible that makes their wives’ lives a lot better than they would have been otherwise. Indeed, I suggest that when a woman understands that this sort of self-sacrifice is essential for a man’s well-being – and sets her mind to find what sorts of thing her husband can do for her and then receives those gifts with gratitude – she’ll be helping him about as authentically satisfied as he can be in this life.

And if it causes her to have to shovel less snow in the winter, well, maybe that’s just a sacrifice she’ll have to make.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.