This weekend, for the Feast of the Holy Family, there is a choice for the second reading, part of St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians: the long version or the short one. One has to wonder if the choice is there because the long version contains the often unpopular verse: Wives, be subordinate to your husbands (Colossians 3:18).
You would be hard pressed to find a more controversial passage in the New Testament than that one…or one more misunderstood. It is not the only time in the Scriptures that we hear that statement, either. In St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians he says almost the very same thing:
Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.
— Ephesians 5:22
What on earth was St. Paul thinking…twice? Believe it or not, that passage from Ephesians is one of the selections that couples can have read at their wedding. You would be surprised how often couples actually choose it…or maybe you wouldn’t. They almost never do! That is unfortunate, since it very beautifully describes how we are all called to live and love in Christ, not just wives, but husbands, single people, priests and religious sisters and brothers, all persons.
If you go back just one verse from that “controversial” one in the Letter to the Ephesians, just one verse previous, St. Paul says:
Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.
That is not just an exhortation for wives; it is for all of us. We are called to be “subordinate to one another,” to submit to and defer to each other in love “out of reverence for Christ.” Only when we do that are we able to open ourselves up to the splendor and the dignity of love that we find in the person of Jesus Christ.
As Christians, we do not look at the world or each other to see how to live and how to love. We look to Christ. He is the source and foundation of love, and the love that Christ has for us is spousal. It is the love that a husband has for his wife. Now, that is not something I am simply making up; in fact, it is something that goes back even further than St. Paul. The spousal love of God is something we find all throughout the Old Testament.
God constantly refers to Himself as the divine spouse or husband of His bride, Israel. He calls her to Himself as a bride, and vows to care for her and watch over her forever. He makes promises to her, promises he intends to keep. He expresses His great desire and affection for her through prophets and poets alike.
It is beautiful and impressive imagery, no doubt. But it could never be more than that. It could never be a true marriage, since God is different from us. He is purely spiritual and dwells in heaven while we are corporal, dwelling bodily here on earth. In order for God to truly be a husband, well, he would have to become…a man. That is exactly what we celebrate in this Christmas season: Jesus Christ, the God who became man for us. God becomes man, and that man is the husband or bridegroom totally in love with His bride. In the New Testament Christ refers to Himself as the divine bridegroom (Matthew 9:15) and the true spouse of His bride, the Church (that’s us!).
Passionate is the fullness of the love He shows Her! His love for His bride takes Him to the cross, willing to die to save her and set her free. The Bride, for her part, is called to total devotion and love for her Spouse, giving her life to Him and holding nothing back.
Now that’s what St. Paul is talking about when he says, “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22). It is precisely what he means when he says, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Husband and wife are called to image the very love of God and the Church, and they do so freely, joyfully and mutually. They are called to “be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
One of the most sought after speakers and experts on what has come to be called the “theology of the body,” is a man named Christopher West. He has an excellent way of explaining this mutual submission of husband and wife. He says that if you break up that word—“sub,” meaning “under” and “mission,” meaning “to be sent forth with the authority to perform a specific service”—then it becomes clear that the husband and wife place themselves “under” or at the service of the mission of their spouse.
This sounds altogether too theological, no? Thanks be to God we are given a beautiful example of it in the Holy Family itself.
These past few weeks we celebrated how the Blessed Virgin Mary receives a mission from God. It is an extraordinary mission. The Angel Gabriel reveals to her that she will conceive and bear a Son, and that he will be the Savior of the world. It is a mission upon which our eternal salvation rests.
St. Joseph, for his part, must place himself "under" that mission. There is no other option. If he is to be the just man and faithful husband of Mary, then he cannot deviate from this mission in the slightest way. How remarkably he places himself under the mission of Mary, as we hear each year in the Christmas celebration!
But today, on this Feast of the Holy Family, we hear that St. Joseph himself has received a mission. The same Angel Gabriel appears to him and reveals his mission: Take this Child and His mother, and get out of town. NOW! Herod is seeking to destroy this Child.
Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you.
From that moment, Mary places herself and her Child totally under that mission. She does not say, “Egypt? Oh, the weather there is terrible this time of year. Let’s go to Jerusalem, instead.” Nor does she say, “Now? I have just had a child. We’ll go next week.” She places herself totally under the mission of St. Joseph because if she does not, the Child will die! The circumstances are that dire, that drastic. But Mary willingly gives herself to that mission, in the same way that St. Joseph had previously placed himself under her mission of bringing Christ into this world and caring for Him.
This is the way God has formed the human family. The family is a communion of persons who are constantly looking out for the best interests of the other, and seeking to place themselves at the service of the other in love.
Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21).
How is God calling all of us—wives, husbands, priests, religious, single persons, old and young,—how is God calling all of us to do that this week?