As you can see‚ even from my short greeting‚ this talk about family is actually a talk in the family. I am not here to preach to strangers‚ but to converse with people familiar to us who will be able to better understand what I have to say‚ because you are hearing it from within. You hear a lot from the outside as well; there is a lot of talk about family these days‚ with everyone trying to define‚ or rather re-define‚ what family is‚ many times based on personal thoughts and feelings or ideologies of various groups of interests‚ creating a lot of confusion. In the midst of all this I got tasked today to try to speak on family as well‚ but not based on my personal ideas‚ although I will share some‚ but rather as a rediscovery of the deep Christian roots of this institution in existence even before the beginning of the world. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…
1. What is family: flesh vs. spirit
The simplest understanding of family is a gathering of people that live under the same roof and‚ most of the time‚ are also related according to the flesh. Beside this rather universal understanding‚ in the Christian Church we also have a greater understanding of family‚ as we also recognize another type of relationships that are not physical in nature but actually spiritual. The spiritual bond between a Godparent and a Godchild is considered as strong as that between parents and their children according to flesh. The Church recognizes it as such and even prohibits to a certain degree the marriage between spiritually related people.
This simple fact opens immediately great possibilities in our understanding of family‚ allowing us to see beyond the materiality of man into his greater calling towards the spiritual world. That is not to say that our bodies and our relationships according to the body are not important‚ they are‚ but restraining our understanding of family to only this material aspect overlooks an entire dimension that could possibly lead us to wrong conclusions. This is the most obvious mistake made by family “experts” these days‚ confining family to a human institution and devoiding it of its connection with its true origins in God.
2. The Christian family as an icon of the Trinity
Christians understand family as an icon of God in the Trinity. The Holy Trinity is the original Family as the Father‚ before the ages‚ begets the Son and proceeds the Holy Spirit; a Trinity of persons that is the archetype for all in existence. The loving counsel of this Original Family led to the creation of man‚ a work of affection‚ meant to extend on the outside the pre-existing love of the Persons of the Trinity. God so wished to have more subjects fashioned in His image‚ with rationality and free will‚ ready to partake in what He shares within Himself. He creates Adam not to be alone in the world‚ but first to be in Communion with Him and secondly‚ as He fashions Eve out of her man‚ to be in communion with all mankind. This is the first man’s family: Adam‚ Eve and God – a perfect icon of the Trinity.
We do not know how this family would have evolved if man had followed the path carved for him into grace‚ but we know that in God’s pre-knowledge of the Fall‚ Adam and Eve were tasked to multiply and enlarge their family‚ to enjoy and to care for all Creation. After the fall‚ with the gift of procreation bestowed upon the original couple‚ Adam and Eve become the parents of many nations. However‚ with the rejection of God through the ancestral sin‚ the original family icon changes in the fallen world and becomes Father‚ Mother and Child‚ an incomplete reflection of the original‚ as God is starting to fade from the ancestral image.
Don’t understand this as there is something with a family understood as Father‚ Mother and Child‚ it is however not the ultimate state‚ is not where we want to end our search‚ but should be regarded as an intermediary stage. The attraction between man and women is ultimately a foretaste of the attraction between God and man. The marriage and the formation of a family through marriage is not an ultimate goal in itself‚ although it seems like this nowadays‚ but even after marriage‚ just as we did before as single people‚ we continue to seek God and strive to go back full circle to the original icon of the family. The purpose of the family is first and foremost the quest for the healing of the rift between us and God.
This continuous search for the reunification of our original family‚ leads some to forego the union of flesh of marriage and to rather take Christ as their bridegroom. The monastics follow this path not to say that marriage is not honorable‚ but because they are actually aiming to climb faster on the heavenly ladder‚ in their blessed eagerness to get closer to God. Their lives in the communities of the monasteries follows the same goal as a marriage between a man and a woman. In fact there are many similarities between the service of Professing of a Monk or a Nun and the Sacrament of Crowning‚ exactly to emphasize the common ultimate goal that is union with God.
4. Temptations of the modern family
Unfortunately‚ living in a fallen world‚ these wonderful ideals are drowned many times under the avalanche of material problems and conflicting ideologies a family faces everyday. We see empty forms of family emerging‚ forms that are not conducive to the common goal that is salvation‚ because they are built on a foundation that is against man’s very nature: sin. Sin that is not understood as breaking of an imposed moral code‚ but as a failure to pursue man’s original pathway to reach full union with God‚ through His Grace and Love for mankind.
This terrible reality is the result of the great temptations that attack at the core of the Christian family. I would like to refer to three of them that I consider‚ personally‚ as defining our age.
First one is technology. Looking around us‚ we see a world that evolves into technologies that were not even in man’s imagination just a century ago. Think only of those black devices‚ which all of us‚ including the suckling’s‚ are holding in our hands. How much power at literally our fingertips! This can make one’s ego boost! Why do I need God when I hold the universe right here‚ in my palm? Not only I can listen to anything I want‚ or read anything I want‚ but I can control my thermostat from it‚ I can lock and unlock my house and I even know where my wife at all time‚ yes‚ there is an app for that. But this is only an illusion of control because‚ in fact‚ we become more dependent of the same technology that makes us boast and we come to be less dependent of God.
The second one is the revolution of birth control and assisted reproduction. In the old times people had big families because they allowed God to bless them with offspring as He saw fit‚ not as they saw as convenient. If some families could not have children‚ they prayed to God for guidance and used adoption and spiritual parenthood to fulfill and transfigure their desire for offspring. God was part of these families because He was allowed to act in all aspects of family life. Nowadays all is planned and God retires as a polite Being. He leaves us alone watching how we try to put together the pieces we are left with after deconstructing the family. We act bipolarly in this aspect: on one hand we don’t want children and we use contraception and abortion to stay away from parenting and live “free” lives‚ while‚ on the other hand‚ we invent more and more complicated ways to pro-create. Anyone can conceive a child nowadays‚ you don’t need a partner of the opposite sex anymore‚ you don’t even need to be fertile; you just go to the cell-bank and shop for what you want. The in vitro fertilization (IVF) and the surrogate motherhood takes care of the rest‚ ignoring the consequences. And this again makes us feel like gods.
The third aspect is the misunderstanding of the word love. When anyone speaks on family they use this magic word: love. However they are not specific‚ or rather choose to be vague about what they mean by it. The Greeks‚ on the other hand‚ were very specific. They had four different words for it: storge‚ the love for family members‚ filia‚ the love for friends‚ agape the sacrificial type of love (like Christ dying on the Cross for us) and‚ finally‚ eros‚ the most misunderstood of them all. I usually leave agape at the end‚ as the highest type of love‚ but I chose eros this time‚ because it has been grossly hijacked and sexualized.
This was not always the case. Vladmir Moss explains that eros was understood as
“the incorrupt movement [that] propels the soul out of itself towards other rational beings and above all towards God. Eros occupies […] a central place in Christian theology and anthropology precisely because Christians understand that it is the quality of our love more than anything else that determines our relationship with God‚ because God is love.”
Eros is a force that unites‚ that makes people feel attracted to one another‚ outside of sexuality. St. Ignatios of Antioch famously said “my Eros is Crucified” referring to Christ. God loves us so much that He chooses to die on the Cross to be back together with His greatest of creations.
All is left nowadays of this beautiful meaning are its sexual connotations. Physical desire‚ although a natural part of a marital union‚ is not a good focal point for a marriage because it can be easily derailed. Eros‚ rather than remaining a bond between two people joined in their goal towards God‚ has become a way of self-gratification with consequences we all experience nowadays. The free and un-restricted access to more and more of this compulsion‚ has greatly disturbed our understanding of family and gender and has allowed for a vast redefinition at a societal level.
5. A new family in Christ
The hope of our current sorry state of affairs is the rediscovery of the bi-dimensional aspect of marriage: material and spiritual. Our family of flesh cannot fulfil its purpose if we retire ourselves from our spiritual family in Christ. Separated from God we have no power and no direction and our efforts of self-redemption will fail time after time.
But this is not what God wants. Christ became man so His dysfunctional human family will be reunited and made one with Him. Although we failed to become one with God before the Fall‚ He chooses to become Man in the aftermath of our corruption. God becomes the new Adam so that the old Adam will become god. The original man family is restored in the incarnate and crucified Christ‚ Who‚ spread upon the cross‚ reunites God with man and mankind within itself.
Christ’s genealogy tree has two sets of roots. Looking down towards His human roots‚ we see a family of flesh and blood‚ in need of redemption. Looking up‚ to his heavenly roots‚ we see the perfect communion of the Father‚ the Son and the Holy Spirit. In between them‚ as the fruit of God’s love‚ is Christ and‚ through Him a new family is emerging. His new brothers and sisters‚ starting in Jerusalem‚ begun to spread the good news around the globe‚ begetting a greater family that incorporates all our individual families‚ in the beautiful bond of the Holy Spirit: the Church.
Only participating in this One‚ Holy‚ Catholic and Apostolic Family‚ we have chance to overcome the many temptation that threatened the very fiber of the Christian family. Yes‚ our family is dysfunctional‚ because is made out of many dysfunctional members‚ but the head of the Family‚ Christ‚ is the One that makes it holy‚ makes it functional and makes it His. This family can be redeemed‚ but only by staying in Communion with Him.
“But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said‚ “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples‚ He said‚ “Behold My mother and My brothers! “For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven‚ he is My brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 1’:48-50)
6. Sanctifying our family tree downwards and upwards.
Prayer makes all of this possible. Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica says:
“It is of great significance if there is a person who truly prays in a family. Prayer attracts God’s Grace and all the members of the family feel it‚ even those whose hearts have grown cold. Pray always.”
Elder Cleopas‚ used to say that if in a family one person enters monastic life‚ seven generations are spared the sufferings of hell. Why? Because by definition a monk is a person that prays; not selfishly‚ but selflessly‚ for the entire mankind. A monks strives to embody Christ in His love for mankind. This unceasing prayer for the world is what is missing in the world. If we will be able to bring back prayer in our lives‚ in our families‚ we will be able to sanctify our family tree downwards and upwards‚ becoming again part of the great plan the God continues to hope that‚ one day‚ we will engage in.
Love has become flesh‚ Emmanuel is born which means God is with us. Let us acknowledge His loving presence‚ let us invite Him back to our family table‚ let us make Him part of our everyday routine‚ and our family will grow stronger as it takes roots from both heaven and earth. Amin.
* Talk given at the Holy Nativity Monastery in Kemp‚ Texas on December 29‚ 2015