If that's all you know from the letter to the Ephesians, you will be likely to (a) skip right over the entire paragraph, (b) dismiss the letter to the Ephesians as an ancient text that is impossible to take seriously in the modern world, or even (c) shrug off the entire Bible.
Pope John Paul did his best to see that you don't fall into that temptation. He spent months' worth of his Wednesday "Theology of the Body" talks going over that famous Chapter 5, word by word.
Why? Just so we would be more respectful of the Bible, even if we found its message hard to stomach? No! Because if we would only read it, really read it, we would discover that in some ways, that part of the late Pauline letters is the crown jewel of the entire gift of Divine Revelation. Paul tells us in the very beginning of the letter that this is what is going on: "God made known to us the mystery of his will...to bring all things into one in Christ--things in heaven and things on earth." By the time you get to Chapter 5, you are prepared for the specifics. And so Paul descends from the heavenly heights and goes right to the heart of the home, and even into the most intimate recesses of the home, and begins to talk to husbands and wives about their relationship.
He didn't start there; Chapter 4 leads in (as we heard yesterday at Mass) by reminding us of the love Christ had for us: he loved us and sacrificed himself for us, the Church. So when Paul gets to the nitty-gritty stuff of family life, he has already set the stage. The model relationship is no less than the love of Christ for his Church, and the Church's response to that love.
Paul isn't telling women just to be "submissive" to any and every sort of behavior or abuse: He starts out by telling all the Christians to "be submissive to each other out of reverence for Christ." "Mutual submission" is to be a characteristic of any Christian community. And if you keep reading, you see that he says wives ought to "be submissive ... as the Church submits to Christ." The Church does not submit to abuse from Christ! The Church accepts the sacrificial love of Christ, and tries to respond to that love. So Paul tells husbands that their love should be "as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself." The "masculine" expression of submission is not "Yes, Dear," but "This is my body, given up for you; take and eat." In the same way, the wife's love should be welcoming and receptive of that sacrifice "as the Church submits to Christ." This is Holy Communion in the heart of the home! Just as Christ and the Church are one Body, husband and wife are one flesh. And then Paul marvels, "This is a great mystery [Latin: sacramentum], and I mean this in regard to Christ and the Church."
In other words, marriage is not about the couple as much as it is a reflection of the real marriage, the real "two become one" of Christ and his people--all of us. God has fulfilled the "mystery of his will, to bring all things into one in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth." Marriage is really a heavenly reality, expressed in human terms and participated in through such human means that we think it is really utterly earthly. And so we can miss the divine invitation that the human sacrament offers.
In this week's Mass prayers, the Prayer after Communion reflects this perfectly:
May your Sacraments, O Lord, we pray,perfect in us what lies within them,that what we now celebrate in signswe may one day possess in truth.