How should we understand ‘wives, be subordinate to your husbands’?
My son’s favorite plea these days is for independence. “I will do this by my own,” he tells me while climbing the stairs and pulling his hand away from mine. He is not “obeying his parents in everything” as this Sunday’s reading from Colossians urges, but he is 2-and-a-half and this is to be expected.
And, if I am honest, the readings for the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph offer several good lessons that I am also too often willing to ignore. There are a number of options for the readings, but a common thread runs through them all. They tell us that how we treat our family members matters and then, appropriately, give us some instruction on how to treat each other well.
Some of this advice seems obvious, even if it can be hard to follow: Honor our spouses, honor our parents. Offer one another heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and forgiveness. As a wife and parent, I am on board with this.
But some aspects of these readings are tougher sells. I start to feel anxious just reading about Hannah leaving Samuel or about Mary and Joseph frantically searching for a young Jesus. Their experiences remind us that being a parent means engaging in a constant battle between trying to provide the best for your children while simultaneously grappling with all that is out of your control.
In these readings, I am reminded that although I carried them and birthed them, my children, ultimately, are not my own.
My children are the most precious part of my life. I want to keep them close to me; I want to protect them; I want to help them grow to be holy men and women. And so often I think this means making sure that I can orchestrate every detail of their lives so as to shield them from suffering.
But in these readings, I am reminded that although I carried them and birthed them, my children, ultimately, are not my own. They, like Samuel, are dedicated to the Lord. They come from God, and my job is to guide them back to God.
And the only way to manage this is, again, told to us in these readings: Over all our efforts, all our qualities, we must “put on love...the bond of perfection.” We are asked to think a little less of ourselves. To teach our children to listen and to obey, and then to let them go their own way, even if we do not understand it. To hope that whatever anxiety they cause us, we will find them exactly where they are meant to be. To believe that ultimately, we will be reunited with them in our Father’s house.
To love someone means that we are willing to decrease so that another may increase.
Another tough sell is that little line in the second reading that I often find troubling: “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands.” Yet in the context of the readings for the day, I am able to draw something fruitful from it. If we look at the qualities required to fulfill the request rather than the connotation of the word itself, what is simply being asked of wives is sacrificial love. To love someone means that we are willing to decrease so that another may increase. This is not the same as losing one’s sense of self; it is simply the recognition that we must let go of our own plans and pride in order to encourage others on the shared path of God’s mercy before us.
And if this is what it means to love, then a few lines later when husbands are asked to love their wives, maybe the same is being asked of them, just in different words: Make yourselves less so that another can be more. In this light, neither partner is asked to be demurely deferential or to be a doormat. We are simply asked to do what families do, which is sacrifice for each other. We work late nights to support each other; we give up jobs to be with each other; we look away from our screens; we clean up after each other, we laugh, we sit in silence, in sorrow, in solidarity with each other. And we do this with the aim of modeling the love of Christ, who sacrificed his life for all of us.
There are so many pressures on families these days, and it is all too easy to run around filled with anxiety or bitterness; to provoke each other; to become discouraged. And, in our grasping and searching and wandering we long for some feeling of control. But the readings for the Feast of the Holy Family urge us otherwise: We are asked to let the peace of Christ control our hearts. This means that we must let go of who we thought we were in order to fully become who Christ asks us to be. It means that we must stop insisting we will do things, as my son says, “by our own,” and instead recognize that all that we are we owe to the one who keeps reaching out to us, taking our hand, even as we try to pull away. The one who guides us and stands beside us, with every step we take.
This reflection also appears on catholicwomenpreach.org.