Who’s in charge?

Last Sunday, December 28, was the Feast Day of the Holy Family. Right after Christmas we are treated with a portrait of the new family of Joseph, Mary and their newborn son, Jesus. After Christmas the three of them trekked over to Jerusalem for Jesus’ circumcision and other Jewish rites for a newborn and his mother. (Luke 2:22-40) After the prescribed rituals, and, undoubtedly some oohing and aahing from friends and neighbors, they went home, where not much more is said about their family life, except that Jesus “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”

Alongside that inspirational family photo, for many of us, the Feast of the Holy Family could be known as “Who’s In Charge Day” because of one sentence in the second reading. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he provokes arguments when he says, “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” (Colossians 3:18). Let the debating begin, as we couples try to maintain our Christianity and at the same time square these words with modern beliefs about the roles of men and women. Which side should I be on? Paul or Modernity? Is my wife in charge, or am I? Or are we equal partners?

It’s a false choice, and getting caught up in that debate pulls us farther away from the point Paul was trying to make: “Above all these, put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.” Paul was using the understood family roles of the day to tell us how to love one another. And how’s that? Like Jesus loved us: humbly, and with everything we have. Whatever role we are called to play in our family, our marriage, our work and our society, we must act out of love in everything we do. Stewing about who’s in charge takes us in the opposite direction.

Paul was not trying to establish or re-establish the rules of social order. He was taking people where they were: as sons, daughters, fathers or mothers, masters or slaves, and saying, in essence, whoever you are and whatever you do, do it in love and service. He was telling us to fulfill our duties to one another in love, knowing that when we serve one another we are serving God.

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