There’s Family, and Then There’s FAMILYFr. Barnabas Powell
My folks at the parish make fun of me a bit when I talk about how much I love being a Southerner. I regale them with stories from my family and how my grandfather taught me to hunt and about growing up in the suburbs of the South and seeing snow for the first time and how my SDouthen culture is so beloved by me for so many good things it instilled in me. And I remind them of what my grandmother once told me about being Southern. She looked at my young face and said, with all the seriousness in the world (she really meant this) “Honey is ain’t true that we Southerners are better than other people. It just seems that way!”
I laugh now at how provincial that sounds, but I also know that there are many who have that kind of love and devotion to their cultural background; their “people”, their “family.”
And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing until it becomes a bad thing. Sadly devotion to one’s cultural background can slip into xenophobia or, worse yet, outright racism. It certainly happened to my beloved Southern culture, and I know it happens among other cultures as well.
But what if there were a way to have an antidote to the worst parts of being from this or that culture? What if there were a spiritual path that led us all to still appreciate the precious treasures of our particular cultures but also protected us from the false notion that this makes others less worthy compared to us? I was actually told this early on in my journey to Orthodoxy: “We were doing complex mathematics while your people were still swinging in trees.” And this person wasn’t joking. Ouch! Folks, that’s not healthy!
Look at our Lesson today in Matthew 12:46-50; 13:1-3:
At that time, while Jesus was speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.”
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he entered a boat and sat there; and the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables.
The Lord is beginning His teaching ministry that will last a little over 3 years until His crucifixion in Jerusalem. And His earthly family; His mother, step-siblings, and cousins, are watching His popularity grow and the crowds press in on Jesus. Naturally, they are concerned for Him. Now some moderns have suggested this passage proves that the Lord dismissed the importance of His family, even His mother, the Theotokos. Others point to this as proof that Mary and Joseph had other children besides the Lord Jesus after the Lord was born. Suffice it to say that, as usual, they are reading more into the passage than is allowed and they are ignoring other information that would correct their snap judgment.
But the passage does do something for us to see the Lord’s priorities in life and just how these priorities reorient how we spend the years God gives us to prepare for life with Him forever. Notice how the Lord defines His eternal Family beyond mere genetic connections. He declares that doing God’s will reveals His true family! He gives us both permission to love our earthly families but also reorients our hearts and minds to embrace the eternal “family” that isn’t determined by genetics, culture, or tribe.
Doing the will of God, knowing the will of God, and following the will of God creates a deeper bond with Christ than the bond created by DNA. This foundational principle in being a purposeful disciple of Jesus Christ doesn’t negate family ties, it fulfills them! Because the scriptures declare that this is why we call the Theotokos blessed for all generations – She did the will of God. Far from dismissing His family as unimportant, this passage reinforces just WHY we hold following the will of God so very important! Because someone who does the will of God is becoming like Christ and being like Christ means you have the “family” resemblance!
Plus, this sets you free to not allow the failures of earthly families to steal your joy and condemn you to despondency over the brokenness of so many family relationships in today’s chaotic world. So many people have struggled with the Eternal Family of the Body of Christ because the only “family” experiences they’ve had have been painful and even abusive in some cases. No wonder the word “family” strikes fear and pain in the lives of some. But the antidote isn’t cobbling together “families” out of some co-dependent emotional feelings, but allowing the Holy Spirit to shape you and form you to grow and thrive in the “Family” of the Church.
In 4th century Egypt lived a monk named Sisoes the Great. He was a disciple of the great St. Anthony, the Father of monasticism. When Anthony died, St. Sisoes went to live in Anthony’s cave as a solitary monk. Sisoes struggled mightily to take seriously the Lord’s command to give up everything and follow Christ. When he was coming to the end of his life, his brother monks gathered at the cave with him to pray with and for their dear brothers. As his time to depart grew near, the saint’s face began to glow and he said “Behold, Abba Anthony is coming.” The brothers were amazed. But then the light from Sisoes’ face grew brighter and he said “Behold, the choir of the Prophets has come.” And then as his face grew even brighter he seemed to be talking to someone and the brothers asked him who he was talking to, and Sisoes answered “I’m asking the angels for just a bit more time to repent more.” Soon the brothers became frightened as the face of the saint, approaching his departure, became as bright as the sun and Sisoes said “Behold, the Lord comes and says ‘Give me the Vesswel of the Desert.” And with that, the saint reposed in the Lord. Some may say this story is fantastical and a “mere myth” but they miss the power of the eternal “Family” to so shape a man so that he becomes like the Lord by grace. This is what the Family of the Church is meant to be!
So, today, you should rightly be grateful for your earthly heritage and your culture, but that can never be more important than the Eternal Family of the Faith. This joyous Family becomes the healing of broken earthly families and family relationships that have wounded us and marred us. The truth is a Normal Orthodox life sets you free to properly love your earthly family all the while realizing that your Eternal Family is the priority in a truly free life!
P.S. You proved to be a citizen of the desert, an angel in the flesh, and a wonderworker, O Sisoës, our God-bearing Father. By fasting, vigil, and prayer you obtained heavenly gifts, and you healed the sick and the souls of them that have recourse to you with faith. Glory to Him that has given you strength. Glory to Him that has crowned you. Glory to Him that works healings for all through you.