A selection from Archbishop Demetrios’s Address at the 2014 Clergy-Laity Congress on Family
Yes, this is lengthy. But it is an excellent address. I have taken out the business components of the address. Archbishop Demetrios addresses the “modern family” and what the family truly is and the intentions and goals of the family as we understand it.
It was not long ago that the word “family” evoked a particular image in the minds of most Americans. In this mental picture we saw a man and a woman, not just living together but joined legally and in most cases through a religious ceremony, in a lifelong bond of marital commitment and deep mutual love. We saw children, usually more than one or two, who belonged to both their parents by birth or adoption. For many of us also, that family portrait included one or more members of the previous generation, a grandmother and/or grandfather who lived in the home of their adult son or daughter, rather than in a retirement community or a nursing home.
Today, there is a movement in our society to change and redraw this portrait completely. We hear about the “modern family,” which in essence means everything and anything. It seems that in many cases any two people who share an address are to be considered a family, whether or not they are married or have children together. So, the family is under heavy pressure, because its very sense of identity and uniqueness is being eroded by this huge change in public sentiment. If everybody and everything is a family, then nobody is truly a family in any meaningful sense.
Today’s family is under pressure in another way, too. The demands of the modern life weaken the bonds between family members, between parents and children, between siblings, between grandparents and grandchildren. Economic concerns take both parents out of the home and into the workplace for more and more hours each day, each week. Falling birthrates mean that children no longer find playmates easily in their own family and neighborhoods, so that organized sports and activities away from home are becoming the norm. Children’s athletics are becoming a focal point, taking children out of their homes for more and more hours each week. How many of our families find their Sunday mornings dominated by activities other than worship in the Church and Sunday School!
The real work of parenting – which is to say, of developing character, religious convictions and life-skills in children – falls to coaches and teachers. Add to that, the dominion of all screens in the contemporary lives of people: television screens, computer screens, iPads and iPods, tablets and smartphones. The modern culture seems to be a culture of the “face in a box” at all times of day and night. People no longer look into the faces of one another; they stare at the various screens, mesmerized and transfixed. And how about the replacement of face to face dialog and communication with texting!
Studying the above mentioned conditions, we can understand why we have today in America, but also in many other countries, the high and appalling rate of divorces – almost 50% – the same sex marriage, and the one parent children – more than 20 million such children in America. Then, it is not unreasonable that the modern world finds itself asking not only “What is a family,” but even “Why is a family?”
To this question, our Church based on the Bible, the Ecumenical Synods, and the 2000 years old Tradition gives an answer with clarion voice: the family is a divine institution, a special creation of God, one that bears His own holy name and dignity. Saint Paul articulates this thought precisely addressing the Christians in Ephesos (Ephesians 3:14-19). He says to them: I bow my knees before God the Father, from Whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.
What St. Paul says is this: The family is an institution of divine origin and character, not merely a social arrangement that arises from the exigencies of earthly affairs. From God every family in heaven and on earth is named. The family is a powerful microcosmic expression of God’s fatherly care for the whole universe. Therefore, if the concept and the very name of “family” derives directly from God the Father, it is truly a holy thing. Such a sublime word the word “family” is not to be used lightly, not to be redefined according to every whim of moral or social convenience!
In presenting family as an icon of the divine prototype, St. Paul is following the teaching of Scripture, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. The family beginning on Earth is described in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament. According to Genesis, God through his creative action formed the first man and the first woman as equals who balance and fulfill each other as “one flesh” and constitute the first family on earth. He gave them a home and meaningful work in the Garden of Eden. He granted them the God-like power of procreation, so that together they could enjoy children who are formed in their own image. In love and harmony, the first family found joy, each member in the other.
Some will say that this is a naïve portrait of the family. But remember that the Scripture also shows that the family can be the arena of terrible tragedies and crimes. In the very same book of Genesis the first homicide on earth is reported, and this terrible crime happens within the first family with the two sons of Adam and Eve, when Cain kills his brother Abel! (Gen. 4:1-16). We do not need to report the deceitful conspiracy of Jacob and his mother Rebecca against his brother Esau. Or, Joseph being sold into slavery by his own brothers (Gen. 37:1-36).
These are valid points that serve rather to corroborate the undeniable fact that the family is a divine institution. For that which has the greatest potential for good, it has also through its misuse the greatest potential for evil. The sacred trust that binds a family together can become an occasion for tremendous evil, when that trust is abused by parent or child or sibling. But the good potentialities of family life are so great that, even in a condition of brokenness, already the prophets of Israel saw an icon of divine love healing to the wounded family.
It is, however, in the New Testament that we encounter a tremendous emphasis on the institution of the family. Among other examples, St. Paul speaking of the Christian marriage and family says that the bond of husband and wife is analogous to the bond of Christ and the Church, and that the mutual love of husband and wife should be like the love of Christ for His Church for which He even offered Himself to death (Eph. 5:21-33).
The superb example for the reality of family as a most holy and unique institution is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. At His incarnation, He was born in a family. He was protected as a newborn baby by His family from the murderous plans of King Herod. He lived for 30 full years out of His total 33 years of His life on earth, in His family in Nazareth, not in the desert. He did His first miracle, recorded at the beginning of the Gospel of John, in Cana of Galilee, transforming the water into wine, just in order to support and strengthen the celebration of a new marriage, of the creation of a new family. And as recorded, also in the Gospel of John, among the very few words that Christ spoke from His Cross, in His very last hours before dying, were words that created a family by giving His disciple John as son to His holy mother and giving the Theotokos as mother to John. It is a moment of breathtaking and awesome beauty, that Jesus in such agony, barely able to speak or even breathe, yet through utmost effort pronounced this blessing of a renewed family life for His beloved Mother the Theotokos and His disciple and Apostle John: This is your Mother. This is your son! Absolutely solemn and astonishing Divine words establishing forever truly sacred family relationships (John 19:26-27)!
The divine origin of the family as an institution and its ultimate and irrevocable consecration by the Lord Jesus Christ, not only by His Words but also by His Actions and personal example, constitute our perfect understanding of what the family really is.
We have, therefore, to be fully aware of the supreme value and irreplaceable nature of the family. We must be fully conscious of the fact that the family belongs to the unique items of the universe created directly by God Himself and shared personally by Jesus Christ, the incarnate God in His earthly life. This awareness and consciousness of the sacredness of the family is our antidote against the constant poisoning of the institution of the family today by all kinds of theories, mentalities and attitudes.
Within this context, we see the Christian Orthodox Family as a dwelling of Christ and a witness of His Gospel.
Truly our Orthodox Christian Family is a home for Christ, His permanent residence, His dwelling place. We certainly encounter the Lord in the Church, especially in the worship there and through the participation in the Holy Sacraments. But our Orthodox Christian family is also a dwelling place of Him. It is so by its strong faith in Him, a faith that is transmitted from generation to generation in the genealogical history of each family. The Orthodox Christian family is a dwelling of Christ by making the prayer to Him a permanent characteristic of its life, something so indispensable and vital like breathing and eating.
It is a dwelling of Christ by having love, originating from Jesus the source of love, being cultivated and continuously growing among the members of the family.
It is a dwelling of Christ by daily listening to His words treasured in the Bible, the source of the absolute truth. The Orthodox family is a dwelling of Christ by having its members constantly transformed and grown spiritually by His dwelling sanctifying and regenerating power.
The Orthodox Christian family as a dwelling of Christ becomes an aroma, a fragrance of Christ as St. Paul beautifully said to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 2:15). Imagine each and every Orthodox home filled with the aroma of Christ, become a house permeated by His spiritual fragrance. St. Paul expands this inspiring image, saying that such a spiritual fragrance of Christ spreads out, reaches faithful and unfaithful, righteous and sinners alike (2 Cor. 2:16). Hence, the Orthodox Christian family automatically becomes a witness of not only a dwelling of Christ but also His Gospel. It becomes so by its very Christian existence which like an exquisite spiritual aroma spreads itself to every direction. But it becomes so also by engaging in activities which aim at disseminating the Gospel, of sharing it with others. There must be as part of the agenda of the family, a daily task of transmitting in any way the Gospel to the people, thinking that this is not only an act of faith, but also an act of benevolence of doing good to the people with whom we come in contact. The Orthodox family, witnessing the Gospel in words and deeds through its members, becomes a true apostolic family continuing in the 21st century the work of evangelization started by the Holy Apostles twenty one centuries ago.
We can easily understand that in view of the present crisis of the family, as an institution of divine origin, and the relevant challenges, if not provocations, our theme “The Orthodox Christian Family: A Dwelling of Christ and a Witness of His Gospel” acquires an enormous importance. Now the crucial question is this: How can we save and preserve, how can we develop and enhance such an image of the Orthodox Christian Family? How can we make this image the prevailing image among families?
When St. Paul said to the Ephesians, I bow my knees before God the Father from Whom every family in heaven and on earth is named (Eph. 3:14-15), he added that he did that in order to pray for them. Pray that Christ may dwell in their hearts through faith and that they being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend and to know the love of Christ which surpassed knowledge, and that they may be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:17-19).
This is an astonishing statement, indeed. The great Apostle Paul started with the solemn assertion that the family has its direct origin in God, Who even gave to the family its name. Then, he proceeded with the prayer that Christ dwells in the hearts of the members of the family and helps them to know His love which surpasses every knowledge. But, St. Paul finally, still on his knees before God the Father, closed his prayer with a petition that the members of the Christian families may be filled with the fullness of God.
With hearts expressing our deep gratitude to God, we now realize that the Orthodox Christian family and its members are not only a dwelling of Christ and a witness of His Gospel but, beyond that, they can be filled with all the fullness of God. This goes beyond any happiness, any dream, any blessing that our human heart could ever desire. This, however, is amazingly and ultimately, our superlative destiny as human beings: to be filled with all the fullness of God.