Feast of the Holy Family; Year B
You are God’s chosen race, his saints; he loves you, and you should be clothed in sincere compassion, in kindness and humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with one another; forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins. The Lord has forgiven you; now you must do the same. Over all these clothes, to keep them together and complete them, put on love. And may the peace of Christ reign in your hearts, because it is for this that you were called together as parts of one body. Always be thankful. Let the message of Christ, in all its richness, find a home with you. Teach each other, and advise each other, in all wisdom. With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms and hymns and inspired songs to God; and never say or do anything except in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Wives, give way to your husbands, as you should in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives and treat them with gentleness.
Children, be obedient to your parents always, because that is what will please the Lord. Parents, never drive your children to resentment or you will make them feel frustrated.
It’s that reading. There is an alternate option here, but no…we may as well address this.
“Wives give way to your husbands” is the phrase that, to critics, encapsulates what is wrong with the Catholic teaching on family. Husbands and fathers at the head, telling everyone what to do; not a Marriage of equals, but a submission of a woman to her husband. This isn’t helped by the history of political marriages, marriages of convenience and the traditional idea of housewives.
But there a couple of things that we can look at here to help us understand that this is not a warning to wives, but wisdom to both parties of a marriage. Firstly, “give way to your husband” is not the end of the sentence. “As you should in the Lord” is important. We should always give way to God’s Will, but to do that, we must know what God’s Will is.
God is not cruel, or controlling. He created us, and is all-powerful and Almighty – yet He allowed us free will. We must choose to love He who is love itself. God does not limit our nature and wants us to flourish. He blesses the first humans. We should give way to the Lord, freely, openly and as a result of our Love for Him – not out of fear, anger, spite, worry, compulsion.
If our God only sought to have us scare us into submission, or we did what he asks of us only in an attempt to placate his worst tendencies, we don’t have a loving relationship at all – we have an abusive relationship.
The Second thing is that this sentence doesn’t stand alone – but is part of a sequence. It is followed by a command to husbands, telling them to “love your wives and treat them with gentleness.” These two sentences serve as two halves of a whole, just as the next to sentences do: that children should obey their parents, but parents shouldn’t drive their children to madness by controlling all aspects of their lives.
St Thomas Aquinas said that love – regardless of whether it is familial love, romantic love, neighbourly love, or Love of God – if to “will the good of the other for the sake of the other”. In short – to want the best for others for their sake, not your own.
In a world that was formally and legally patriarchal – to say that men should choose to want their wife’s good for the wife’s sake was (and, in many ways, still is) a radical statement. Even in the 20th Century, where women couldn’t vote, and were discouraged from working; and in the 21st Century where mothers are still the ‘default’ carers in the home – it still carries a radical tone in it.
So – one of the more controversial passages, one that could easily be misunderstood and misused to put others down is, actually, a reminder to think of others, and care for others – those who are closest to us, who we can sometimes more easily look past.
And we see, in the Holy Family, a perfect example in this. Imagine Joseph being told about Mary’s pregnancy and having to believe your new wife – St Matthew tells us that he sought to protect her from others, seeking her Good for her sake. Imagine Mary having to trust her husband and flee with her new-born baby on the basis of his say so and a dream. She had to give way to him and trust in him.
It is tempting, often, to take the easy option if its there – even if we don’t think about it. It takes effort and thought to really understand other people – but that is, surely, the basis of marriage. But also, today’s 2nd reading should be a lesson in exactly that – that on the surface, what we are being told is easy to understand, if unpleasant to accept. But, if we take time and put effort into trying to think about it – in the mind of another – we can learn what we’re really being told.