Feast of the Holy Family – 1 John 3:1-24; Luke 2:41-52
There are two famous sinners whirling around in a whirlwind in Dante’s Inferno. Their names are Paolo and Francesca. Francesca was married to Paolo’s brother, but she and Paolo had an affair, her husband caught them and killed them, and now they’re whirling around in hell together, on the level of the lustful.
And some readers over the years have condemned Dante for this, for putting lovers in hell. They’ve thought Dante is opposed to love and to spontaneity and to people being happy. But the thing about Francesca is that she only talks about herself. She’s beautiful, but she only talks about her own feelings, and she never mentions Paolo by name. She doesn’t even look at him, she’s looking away, and the eyes are key in Dante.
When in the beginning of the poem Dante’s beloved Beatrice looks down from heaven and sees he’s in trouble, wandering in the dark forest, she really sees him, really cares about him. Her eyes are focused on him. And then she sends the poet Virgil to guide Dante on this long journey and Virgil is always looking Dante in the eye and studying the expressions on his face, his eyes are always fixed on him, and that’s the image of what love really is.
Paolo and Francesca aren’t in hell because they loved each other. They’re in hell because they didn’t.
Love serves, Ruth Burrows says. When we lust, “we want to possess, dominate, devour, destroy,” she says, but “love serves,” and this is who Jesus is. Jesus is always looking at others, always giving himself away. “We are to love one another,” the letter of John says. When one day it is revealed who we shall be, “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” See him. Be like him.
As Burrows puts it, “when God showed us his inmost nature, the way he is as God, he came to us in the form of a servant, and as I have done, so you must do also.” It’s the nature of the human person. To be human, we must be servants.
To be human, we must be servants.
I think sometimes as Catholics we lose sight of the fundamental things when we talk about marriage and family and sexuality, and it’s important we don’t, because we need to stand up against popular culture, which is really a culture of lust, a culture of devouring and possessing and destroying, people and objects and goods and the earth itself. When the culture talks about marriage and family it’s always about rights and privileges and self fulfillment, not about self sacrifice, not about giving, and we have to be really clear about why that’s wrong: love serves. That’s the issue for us, in this and in all things.
The night before Barb and I got married my dad told me this story.
Their first morning together a new husband woke up early and went into the kitchen and made his wife a wonderful breakfast, eggs and toast and pancakes and coffee, and he brought it to her in bed, on a tray, with a rose in a little vase.
She was delighted. She was thrilled.
From now on, the young husband said, this is the way I want it.
Of course there are lots of problems with this story. It reflects a lot of values we don’t share anymore, and shouldn’t, because marriage, of course, is partly about rights and partly about self fulfillment, for both the people in the marriage, and for the children. The gospel nowhere gives the man authority to act like a tyrant.
But in another passage we could have read today, from Colossians, wives are told to be “subordinate” to their husbands, and in a way they should, because that’s to be like Christ. And husbands should “love their wives,” Colossians says, and in Christian terms that’s really the same thing. In the most controversial passage in Paul, the one from Ephesians, he says wives should “submit” to their husbands or be “subject” to them, and husbands should love their wives “as Christ loved the church,” and I’m not just playing word games to say those two statements mean the same thing, because to love as Christ loves is to submit to the other.
To love as Christ loves is to submit to the other.
The root meaning of the word “obey” in Latin is “to listen.” We don’t say in the Catholic marriage rite “love, honor and obey,” we say “I will love you and honor you all days of my life,” and I think that’s really interesting and important. But obedience is a good word, too, if we really understand it. It means to listen.
So there are the eyes: looking at your wife and looking at your husband. And there are the ears: listening, really listening.
And here our model is Mary in the Gospel, who with her husband frantically searches for her twelve year old son, and who is told, when she finds him, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house,” and who doesn’t rebuke him, doesn’t apparently argue back. She listens, even though she doesn’t understand. She listens, so deeply Luke uses the phrase “kept all these things in her heart.” Sometimes this is translated as “treasured” all these things in her heart. She keeps and she treasures, and not just in the moment, but over days and weeks and years.
This upcoming June Barb and I will have been married 40 years, and I know how hard it is for a marriage to be holy and a family to be holy day to day and year to year. It’s very hard work. We married couples are always doing homework, because our work is our home. But here’s what I want to suggest for this upcoming week. Two simple but difficult things.
First I suggest that for a few minutes we really look at our husband or our wife. Really focus on them. I don’t mean only literally, though I think that would be good, to notice the expression on the face of our spouse or a new hair style or a new sweater. I mean to spend a few minutes really noticing the other person and what that person is doing and not doing. Let’s try for a few minutes, just a few, to peel our attention away from ourselves and turn it towards the other.
And like Mary, let’s not try to fix what we find. Let’s not try to make it better or make it fit what we want. Let’s listen.
That’s the second thing. Let’s really listen to the other person. Maybe sit down and ask the other person what’s going on and how he or she feels and just take it all in.
And then, I guess there’s a third thing, even harder. Keep it in your heart. Keep it all in your heart. Treasure it.