Many of you probably know the big Catholic Church in Oxford. It’s sometimes called The Oratory, because the Oratorians are the priests there, but it is properly named after a saint – St Aloysius Gonzaga, and Friday was his Day. So I was reminded, as I remembered his story then, that for Christians caring about Human Rights always involves sacrifice. It’s not enough to think that everyone is equal in the sight of God. We have to live it. It’s why all good Christians give some of their time and/or money to helping the poor and starving of the world. It’s one of the ways we take up our cross, as Jesus asks us to in the Gospel today. (Luke 9:18-24) St Aloysius was a young man in his 20’s who put this into practice. He was a Jesuit, who might have expected the excitement and challenge of going to some foreign country to spread the Gospel, as St Francis Xavier did in India and the Far East. Instead, St Aloysius ended up looking after plague victims in 16thC Italy, knowing that this might well lead to his death. It did!
I thought of him in the context of Human Rights because our 2nd Reading today (Galatians 3:26-29) is a classic text from which the Christian emphasis on human rights is taken. Paul writes that “There are no more distinctions…. Between slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” However, those who know the Bible well, including those who attack the faith, will point out to us that. despite this passage from St Paul, he appears to be strongly opposed to male and female being equal in another place, when he talks about wives obeying their husbands. If you find yourself challenged on this, then make sure the person challenging you reads the full text, because in the two places where St Paul writes this(Colossians 3:18-25 & Ephesians 5:21-33) he goes on immediately to say something, that may seem obvious to us, but was extremely challenging to the Greco-Roman world he was writing to. He says in his letter to the Colossians that husbands must “love their wives” That was not what most men did at the time!
In Ephesians, St Paul goes a lot further by comparing the whole marriage relationship to the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ for all of us. So he says that Husbands must love their wives, “Just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” That, of course, means husbands being prepared to die for their wives – not just vague romantic love but solid sacrificial love. And he says that wives obey (or submit) to their husbands as the Church obeys Christ. It sounds terribly submissive to our modern ears, until we remember that Christ does not call us to obey him by submitting to him in some grovelling servant way. No, he makes himself our servant “I have come not to be served but to serve”. (Matthew 10:28) It’s why he washes the feet of the disciples before the Last Supper. So the whole relationship of husband and wife is meant to be one of mutual and sacrificial service – something we Christians take for granted nowadays, but was very radical in the Europe of the 1stC.
Yes, many fail to put it into practice, and many have failed through the past Centuries, where women have often been oppressed and dominated by men, but however much this has been the case, the Church has always put this equal relationship before the world in the familiar but challenging words of the Marriage Service “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.” I always point out to couples at the Marriage Preparation that this mutual offering of sacrificial love includes a mutual taking of each other’s hands, not just holding hands. So first the man takes the woman’s hand, and then they loose hands, and then the woman takes the man’s hand. Equality demonstrated
Of course some will argue that because St Paul gives the man and the woman different responsibilities in the relationship he does not think them equal. The point we Christians would make, and I made last week, is that being equal does not mean being the same. A man cannot give birth to a baby as a woman can, but that does not make him inferior but simply different. The physical bodies of a man and a woman are different in ways that actually affect their whole way of thinking and being. This is a big subject that affects all sorts of things that I can’t go into now, but it does mean that trying to insist on an equality that pretends we are all the same will not produce true equality. Human rights for a Christian must always include our human responsibilities so that whatever our differences we know we must serve others sacrificially. St Aloysius came from a rich Spanish family. He died caring for the poor. That is why he is a Saint.