Over a hundred years ago, there was a young wife who had a dilemma just before Christmas. She and her husband were barely making ends meet, and they lived in the days before credit cards. It was time to buy him a Christmas present, and she wanted to give him something extra special, but she had less than two dollars spend. She wasn’t good at making things, and time was running out.
One thing he had that he prized above all other things was a heirloom pocket watch that his Father and Grandfather had, he’d pull it out from time to time and others would admire it. If she could get him a nice chain to put the pocket watch on, that would make his Christmas special. But how to do it?
She had very long, beautiful hair. It glistened, it shone, it was the envy of all around her. Her husband adored it, thought it was a key part in making her the most beautiful woman in the world, at least in his eyes. After thinking about how much she loved her husband, she went and had cut off her hair, selling it for almost the price of a nice, new chain for his pocket watch.
When it came time to exchange gifts, her husband looked at her strangely, since her hair was now short. She opened her gift and found it was a nice set of combs, which would have been perfect for her long hair. But she was excited at the prospect of her gift for him, and begged him to put his heirloom pocketwatch on the new chain she bought for it. But he couldn’t do it. He’d sold the watch to buy the combs for her hair, which was now gone.
This story is a classic story told by an American author, O. Henry, The Gift of the Magi, and the thing about this story that I haven’t been able to find in any other story is how these two people were willing to give up the most precious thing they had for each other’s sake, at the same time, for the same reason. They story had a funny twist and their gifts end up being useless; their feelings for each other and their willingness to give up all for each other isn’t.
When we look at today’s second reading, most people only look at half the story. We see the verse “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord” without any context, you girls have to do what we guys tell you to. Right? That part would have made sense to the people of the time, because women were considered property, marriage was a business deal between a man and a woman’s father. But do we see the other half? “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her” This isn’t the Holy Thursday foot washing, although that would be a good question for a husband “When was the last time you washed her feet?”, but that’s Good Friday, the Passion Story of Jesus pouring Himself out completely for the sake of the world. This part wouldn’t have made sense to the people of Paul’s day. They saw loving your wife as a bonus, but not essential, and giving everything for a wife didn’t make sense: if you lost your wife or she didn’t work out, you could always do a deal for another one. The men who heard this would be scratching their heads.
These verses aren’t really about who gets to wield authority over who, it’s about what we should be willing to give to someone who’s returning that level of commitment. It’s about two way commitments; Christianity is about two way commitments, and it goes all the way back to Mount Sinai when God told Moses “You will be my people and I will be your God.” God just doesn’t sit there and wait for us to bring a cup of coffee or a beer during a football game, God doesn’t gripe about what we aren’t doing for Him, everything starts with God’s action: He brings us through everything.
That level of commitment isn’t something that’s casual and it’s not about just having fun. It’s not just about two people, this kind of commitment: every positive healthy human relationship has its roots in Christ, every positive healthy has Christ’s relationship with us as its model. Every friendship, every teaching relationship, every working relationship, every business relationship, and every family relationship uses Jesus as its model, and we look to Jesus to give us the model of how we have to be. It doesn’t mean the other person can walk all over us, or we shouldn’t say anything when a gross injustice happens, Jesus spoke out against injustice when the time called for it, when he drove the moneychangers out of the Temple. But when it comes to the center of who we are as a people together, we are all called to be ready to give everything.
Christ gives us the model of giving everything in the Eucharist. All of our relationship come together in the Eucharist. If we owe Jesus everything, it’s because he’s given everything for us. As we look to the most important relationships of our lives, we should settle for nothing less.