How to Avoid Bitterness

(Homily for Holy Family Sunday)

"We are not made for equality,
but for obedience and worship." (C.S. Lewis)

I once heard about a parish that was in the forefront of social justice issues. They had a food bank to serve the poor. They denounced military spending and welfare cuts. They considered themselves to be welcoming of everyone and open to all opinions. But, oddly enough, once a year they closed themselves to a certain passage of Scripture. They would not even allow it to be read from their pulpit. It was the one we just heard:

"You who are wives, be submissive to your husbands.
This is your duty in the Lord."

These are hard words for us today. Our Baptist brothers and sisters took a certain amount of ridicule for re-affirming this teaching. It is easy for us a Catholics to back away from those words, to say that St. Paul was writing to people in a patriarchal culture, that what he teaches does not apply in our democratic, egalitarian society. A couple of comments are in order.

Like most (if not all) of you, I believe democracy is a good thing. We should treat each other as equals before the law--whether we are rich or poor, educated or illiterate, strong or debilitated. Democracy is a way of restraining the powerful from trampling on the weak. Nevertheless, it does not express the deepest reality of the human person.

The place where we discover who we really are is not in a political system, but in family. And family by definition cannot be a democracy. A family constitutes itself by the differences of its members. I'm not talking just about the obvious gap between parent and child, but even the difference, for example, between older sister and younger brother is a yawning one. Still that is precisely what makes a family and distinguishes it, say, from a club or a circle of friends. We choose our friends because we have something in common--but we are thrown into a family and have to discover our place the best we can.

A family begins with the attraction between two people who are radically different. It is precisely their differences which make a man and woman attractive to each other, but they are also the occasion for a thousand cross purposes, some small and humorous, others gigantic, even tragic. Given the inevitable misunderstandings, how is possible for that attraction to develop into the kind of unity necessary for marriage and family? I want to suggest this Sunday that St. Paul has some pretty sound advice.

He speaks first to the wives, "Be submissive to your husbands." Now, this was no big news for women of Paul's time. And I don't think it really is even for the woman of the nineties. Perhaps she is even better placed to understand it. In my twenty-seven years as a priest I have talked heart to heart with a good sampling of the female population--old and young, professional and peasant, "feminist" and "traditional." I just have to say it is almost universal that they assume they will be fulfilled by submission. (Have we not all seen ardent feminists become remarkably submissive when the right--or even the wrong--man comes into their life?) More often than we men imagine, women long for, even pray, that their husband will be (or will become) the man they can submit to without reserve. It is a normal, natural longing--but Paul adds something else.

He tells wives submission is "you duty in the Lord." He's calling wives to a certain mysticism. To not forget their wedding day when they wore that beautiful bridal garment. They represented the Church giving herself to Christ. That's the marriage which will last forever. The Mormons have a good instinct when they talk about "marriage in time and eternity." But the eternal marriage is the one between Jesus and his bride the Church. Every Christian wife should continual remind herself that, even after wrinkles set in, she represents something eternal. Her submissiveness to her husband pre-figures the eternal submission of the Church to Jesus the Groom.

At this point some men might be thinking, "right on, Father! My wife should listen to me more. She thinks she is always right." But St. Paul also has a word for husbands. To them he says something which at first seems too simple. He tells them plainly, "Love your wives." This can seem like a let-down, especially after his strong words to wives. But remember that Paul means something different by love than found in popular songs or even most wedding announcements. Sometimes I hear about a guy leaving his wife because he just "does not love her anymore," or because he "fallen in love with someone else." This is what I want to say to him:

"Look, you dumb wimp. You have finally arrived at a point where you can understand what 'love' really means. It is not a feeling. Love is a decision. Now get back with your wife and learn to love her. I'll tell you how in just a minute. But first let me explain what the Bible means by love."

When St. Paul tells husbands to love their wives, he is quick to add, "like Christ loves the Church." (Eph 5:25) He loves her not because she is always responsive or makes him feel good. His love is not in domination, but in self-sacrifice. Paul reminds the husband that he becomes one body with his wife in marriage. And he points out that no one harms his own body. (Eph 5:29) Only a person who has lost his judgment takes a knife and cuts his arm. That person has to be restrained--same with a husband who hits his wife or turns his will over to alcohol or other drugs. As a priest I have been involved in interventions because of those problems--but there is a danger in concentrating on those extreme situations. A person can think he is fine because he is not a wife batterer or a drug addict. The fact is we are up against something else which more corrosive in destroying marriages.

St. Paul puts his finger on it when he tells husband (and wives) to "avoid bitterness." Bitterness comes when a person feels his rights and dignity have been violated. It is the flag Satan plants in a human heart and says, "this soul belongs to me." Brothers and sisters, in a few days, we begin a New Year, the last one of this century, maybe the last one of your life or mine. I urge you to ask Jesus to remove that bitterness which has taken root in your heart. Facing such an operation might be scary, but it must be scheduled sooner rather than later.

Let's make a fresh beginning. Let's re-dedicate ourselves to what is most important, to where we discover our true selves--not by standing on our rights and dignity--but rather by joyfully submitting one to another. When you walk out of the Church this morning, I ask you to look up at the beautiful stain glass window of the Holy Family--Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Jesus, the only Son of God was greater than Mary, but he submitted to his mother and obeyed her. Mary, who was immaculately conceived, was greater than St. Joseph, but she submitted to her husband and obeyed him.

Holy Family Sunday 1996 "There is a great mystery here. We all want a certain independence, autonomy, but to build family we need to accept a legitimate authority."


From the archives (Holy Family Sunday, Year A):

2013: Overcoming Bitterness
2010: The Flight from Bethlehem
2007: Honor Your Father and Mother
2004: The Most Diverse Family
1998: How to Avoid Bitterness

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Sunday Homilies

Audio Files of Homilies

Podcasts of homilies (website of my niece, Sara)

Are these homilies a help to you? Please consider making a donation to St. Mary of the Valley Parish.

Complete list of Holy Family Sunday Homilies:

2013: Overcoming Bitterness
2012: Obedience and Freedom
2010: The Flight from Bethlehem
2009: With Great Anxiety
2008: The Dignity of Marriage
2007: Honor Your Father and Mother
2004: The Most Diverse Family
2003: The Key to Family
2002: Saintly Seniors
2001: The Holy Family in Egypt
2000: More Important Than Family
1998: How to Avoid Bitterness
1996: You Are My Father

Wedding Homily


(Praying at West Seattle Planned Parenthood)

Parish Picture Album

(December 2010)

Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)

Parish Picture Album

MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru