Two weeks ago the Religious Education program for children began its Christmas vacation with an afternoon of Christmas caroling. The school children and their parents met at some of the local nursing homes to sing carols to the residents. Afterward, they gathered in the Hospitality Room for cookies and hot chocolate.
A few hours before the caroling began I was asked to bring a some CD’s of Christmas music to play during refreshments. This posed a bit of a problem. I have Christmas music CD’s, but I had no idea where they were. I don’t listen to CD’s any longer; I listen mostly to music in digital format. A few decades ago CD’s were cutting-edge technology; today, they’re obsolescent.
The world changes; technology changes very quickly. Society changes, and we are changed by it even when we don’t perceive the change. There is an example in today’s second reading of a set of values from the ancient world that have gone the way of the gramophone. The Letter to the Colossians says, “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord.” (Colossians 3:18)
These few lines in the Letter to the Colossians, (Col 3:18-21), are the remnants of an ancient household code. Household codes were standardized lists that were used to teach socially acceptable behavior to the young. They were common in ancient Hellenistic society. The several examples of household codes in the Christian Scriptures are the result of the influence that their culture had on the first few generations of believers. Although Christian converts had adopted a new Faith, they could not help but be influenced by the culture in which they lived.
Ancient Hellenistic culture conceived of human society as being necessarily stratified into multiple ranks according to political power. Women had political rights, but typically less so than men. Likewise, children had legal and political rights, but less so than adults. These few lines from Colossians, which contain statements considered offensive today, are a reflection of the way in which people understood their society thousands of years ago.
We do not live in a stratified society. We live in a very egalitarian society that accords equal rights to men and women, nearly equal rights to children, and even some rights to animals. The author of the Letter to the Colossians was using a common cultural assumption of the time to teach a lesson about Faith. We should avoid letting the offensiveness of social stratification stand in the way of perceiving that lesson. Moreover, the foreignness of this ancient social structure might even offer us some help toward putting our faith into action today.
The author of the Letter to the Colossians used a set of standard cultural assumptions to teach a lesson that was not accepted widely by ancient society. The author wrote, “let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body; be thankful.” (Colossians 3:15) This is a small part of a post-Baptismal instruction. The author is telling his readers how to live a life consistent with the vows and hope of Baptism. He said that the new garment one puts on after Baptism is a visible sign of an inner disposition, a new life in imitation of Jesus. The baptized are members of Christ’s body the Church, and are filled with Christ’s spirit of peace. For all these gifts it is appropriate to be grateful to God.
In addition to gratitude to God, there is a second lesson about mutual love between believers. The section of the Letter that we find offensive today is a command to mutual love. We can safely disregard the assumptions about a stratified society because they are merely the background against which the author made his point about mutual love. The point of his reference to an ancient set of cultural values is made in his unique addition to the household code: “as is proper in the Lord.” (Colossians 3:18) It is worth our effort to reflect on what constitutes behavior “proper in the Lord.”
Family life today is not only very different from the recent past, it continues to change at a rapid pace. Someone remarked recently that the annual Diocesan celebration of wedding anniversaries at the Cathedral has changed dramatically in the past few years. It used to be common to have couples in attendance who had been married for forty, fifty, even sixty years. Recently, however, a long marriage is one that has lasted for twenty-five years. People marry later in life, and have children later in life, if at all. Those families that could be called “traditional families” are not immune to the changes in our society; those changes might affect them from without rather than from within, but they still have an effect.
The culture in which we live has an effect on us, whether we perceive it or not. Contemporary culture has had a visible effect on marriage and family life; not all of that influence has been positive, but we are required to address all of that influence with an attitude of faith. How does one live today as a member of a family affected by a culture that is not friendly toward traditional marriage and traditional family life? Perhaps unknowingly, the author of the Letter to the Colossians gave us an answer to that question. He used the assumptions of his time to teach a counter-cultural lesson: that one’s behavior should always be “proper in the Lord”: compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient, forgiving, loving, peaceful and grateful. (Colossians 3:12-15)
Some of you today are dressed in new clothes you received at Christmas. Many of you will go home to enjoy other gifts you received; perhaps, you’ll carry some of these with you when you return to your normal activities after the holidays. The Letter to the Colossians has a suggestion about something else to display as a result of your celebration of the Lord’s Nativity. The author of the Letter reminds us to put on the new life of Christ – in our homes, and in our daily routine, to display the peace of Christ. It is unlikely that we can turn back the clock on the changes that have occurred to family life in our country. We can, however, have a profound impact on our culture even though our culture can be unfriendly to religious faith. We can live in the peace of Christ; we can be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient, forgiving and loving toward one another, and grateful to God. We can live in a way that is profoundly counter-cultural; we can have an influence on a culture that is mostly blind to the value of religious faith. “Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17)