I have been claimed both as a member of an unhappy family and of a happy family. The unhappy one I was born into and the happy one I was adopted into through marriage. I am speaking of natural families here. As my family of origin was stricken by a failed marriage, I have a hard time believing that the distinction between happy and unhappy families is not a deep and important one.
Perhaps Tolstoy meant to respect this important distinction when he wrote that “Happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” At the same time, I have often wondered how as a Christian the claiming of me by my family of origin and that of my family of adoption might be equally important in teaching me what it means to be a member of God’s family in the body of Christ.
Families have moral standing for human beings because they form us, lead our hearts to pursue and attain goods that are quite real. “Family values” might better be conceived in terms of the cultivation of certain virtues that lead us to understand our lives and their goods as bound up with other lives and their goods. The giving and receiving of nurture and care for the body, cooperation in common tasks, the development of the type of friendship that needs a long history, and—perhaps especially in large families—the observation and celebration of personality are some crucial goods families teach us to value. Theologians and church leaders have put forth still higher estimations of the family. Perhaps none expresses more hope in the family than those who speak of it as a “domestic church,” or, as John Paul II calls the family in Centesimus Annus, “sanctuary of life.”
Those of us who come from unhappy families are, I believe, inclined to a bit of cynicism when we hear such high hopes expressed in regard to the family, even the “Christian family.” Yet I believe care is required here lest we undercut the very grounds on which we came to judge our own families unhappy—e.g. blind selfishness prevailed when contrition and reconciliation would have brought peace, etc. Thinking of my own family troubles I have often thought they could be summed up as the absence of truthfulness. The moral importance of family is real.
But if family does matter, what then do we do with this Sunday’s scripture readings which juxtapose Hannah and Samuel with Mary and Jesus, combined with an exhortation of certain virtues for the living together of Christians in Colossae? In I Samuel and Luke, we may say, some tension seems to exist between the claims of family and temple, and yet familial blessings are also at issue. Hannah seems to rarely see her firstborn son, and yet her dedication of him to the temple yields the priest’s blessing of her to have more offspring—a family blessing (I Sam. 2:20). Mary and Joseph search anxiously—I can only imagine!—for their son Jesus for three days in Jerusalem before discovering he decided to stay being in the temple. Yet their anxious search for their son, and ultimate chastisement by him, leads to further treasure in Mary’s heart (Lk 2:51). If we were to judge by these scriptures, we might say that the claims of temple or church and of family can be difficult to disentangle from one another.
As I read through the letter to Colossians this week, it seemed to me to embody this tension between natural and ecclesial families. The Gospel of Christ is proclaimed boldly in the first three chapters, emphasizing the cosmic Lordship of Christ together with a radically new life—from inside out—for those baptized into his death and resurrection. The lectionary passage from Colossians contains a powerful articulation of the virtues correlative to being chosen and set apart by Christ, a formation of the Christian “family” in which there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free.”
And then, at 3:18, the writer makes an abrupt transition into a description of “family order” with guidelines for the roles of husband, master, wife, child and slave. Not only may the subject matter itself seem out of place, but what of the rather conservative treatment of it? What do we make of what seem almost incommensurable approaches to Christian formation reflected within this letter?
I suggest placing it in the frame of the “already, but not yet” sense of time that shapes the Christian life. Urgency and stability must both find a place in lives so framed. The turn to established social structures suggests a stability to offset the urgent spirit that leads the writer to uproot traditional Jewish practices in the earlier chapters proclaiming Christ’s cosmic lordship.
What could it mean to discern well our course once situated in this tension? Can we learn anything about Christians’ membership in natural families or other non-ecclesial institutions? I suggest it means we be open to goodness and grace wherever we may find it. To insist that some institutions may become sources of grace, while others categorically may not be trusted, is another way to attempt to seize control of our lives. Put differently, our task is not to delineate those places where transforming grace can be present, but to keep time with God in God’s saving works.
On the other hand, I suggest we also must take seriously that God is working in us in such a way that what we consider a “happy” family or community is revisable; it will change as we are changed. We might think here of the naming of Christ’s body the “ekklesia,” a gathering for deliberation on public matters rather than a self-selecting club. With regard to our imaginations, perhaps this term should remind us that our imaginations will need to be stretched and enlarged as we follow Jesus into his kingdom.
While I give thanks to God for my adoptive family (the “happy” one), I am increasingly aware that my family of origin is also important for beginning to understand what it means to be claimed as a member of God’s family or the body of Christ. For if happy natural families can shape us to see the world as it is, so an unhappy family can teach us what is required to endure in broken communities. Some of these virtues are named by the writer in Colossians as compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.
May we, chosen in Christ for God’s family, continue to stretch our imaginations through the practice of compassion, patience, and above all, charity.