36 - What Means It To Love Christ More Than Family? June 23, 2019

For audio, click here

Hebrews 11:333-12:2

Matthew 10:32-33, 37-38, 19:27-30

The LORD says to His disciples: “Whoever loves father or mother, son or daughter more than (hyper) me is not worthy of me.” “Love” here is “phileo”; it is more intense than “agape”. It denotes the affection you feel for those near and dear to you. But, the meaning of Our LORD’s word may be given in the preposition, translated as “more than.” It means “more than” in the sense of “beyond” or “above”. That is, how far does the “circle of love” or “affection” in which you live extend? Does it extend only as far as, or beyond the circle of your family and your life in this world? Do you love your family and your life in this world within the circle of your love for the Savior, or do you love the Savior within the circle of your love for your family and the world?

In the former, the love of the man for his wife, of the wife for her husband, of Mom and Dad for their children, the children for their parents, is an image, an icon, of the love of Christ and His Bride, the Church, of the Church for her Heavenly Bridegroom, the LORD Jesus Christ, of the Spirit and His Bride for the children born of them from above in the baptismal Font, of the faithful for their Savior and His Holy Mother. In this circle, one’s love for one’s family is rooted in the love of Christ and His Church. It is blessed, sanctified to become a participation in the love of the Holy Trinity. Participating in this love, the home is infused with the fragrance and light of the Holy Spirit. It is shaped and molded from within by the inexpressibly tender love of the Mother for her son, of the Son for His Mother, the unspeakably joyous love of the Bride for her Bridegroom in the love of the Bridegroom for His Bride, the Church.

In the latter circle of affection that encloses one’s supposed love for the LORD inside the circle of one’s affection for the family and one’s life in this world, the LORD, in fact, is lost. He is replaced, wittingly or no, by a “totem,” an ancestral god. This kind of love shows all the marks of the world: prejudice, hatred, bitterness, contention, insults, malicious rumors, resentment, distrust, suspicion, blame-shifting, self-justification, strife, conflict, jealousy, envy, fear, anxiety, worry, nervousness, and debilitating and devastating dysfunctions of all kinds that produce angry isolation and despairing loneliness…and so on and on and on.

May I draw a portrait of that family whose “circle of loving affection” extends beyond the circle of the family so that familial affection is embraced by the infinitely transcending and absolutely intimate circle of the love of Christ and His Bride, the Church?

In this “circle of love,” Dad loves the Mom. He treats her with kindness, deference and humility, with respect and love. He never insults her. He never speaks harshly or angrily to her, but he speaks softly and respectfully to her. He watches over his children attentively, disciplining them as needed—because, when a child is young and his inner man is still developing, oftentimes he is not strong enough to fight off the passions of selfishness and anger that sweep over him, and the child needs help in the form of consistent, gentle but firm discipline to help him develop the necessary spiritual muscles to master those passions.  The Dad requires his children to be obedient and truthful, that they treat their Mother with respect and affection, and each other with respect and kindness. He teaches them to share, appropriately; but, at the same time to respect what belongs to brother or sister. Screen time, let’s say, is limited not just for the children but for Mom and Dad, too! The reading of good books is encouraged, developing the children’s skills and talents, their love for the arts and/or for crafts, learning other languages is cultivated. Family vacations are a joy—because Dad will not tolerate bad behavior!! Dad and Mom are careful not to allow into the home words, images and sounds that carry the spirit of this world, that in ways subtle and not so subtle inflame the inner man toward the insolence and disobedience of idolatry. The home is filled not with distractions to mask an inner loneliness or boredom, but with an inner stillness, filled with the gentle and kind presence of Christ and His Beloved Mother. This is a stillness the soul learns to treasure, for it is a refreshing, nourishing elixir that satisfies the soul’s thirst for joy and peace, because it is a stillness that resounds with the still, small voice of God caressing the soul. It frees the mind so she can engage herself in activities and pursuits that are noble, good, uplifting, and that enlarge the heart’s capacity to love God, her mom and dad, her brothers and sisters, and indeed all creatures of the world in the love of God. Because of the good Spirit that infuses the home, meals are wonderful family time that actually encourage digestion! They are blessed by the meal and table prayers of the Church. Icons, at least some with candles or lampadas, hang on the walls. The children are taught to pray before the icons primarily because they know that Mom and Dad pray before the icons! And from the joy of the LORD that is embodied in Mom and Dad, they experience prayer not as a burdensome obligation, but as a time of taking a dip in the River of Sweetness, Christ Himself (Ps 35:9 LXX). The Holy Scriptures are honored and venerated actively; that is, they are read and memorized. The children know the stories of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, even more than they know their super-heroes; indeed, their super heroes are the saints and the martyrs of the Church. Their inmost confidant and friend is their guardian angel, their patron saint, the Most Beloved Panagia, Christ Our Savior. Prayers are said with attention and devotion before bedtime, maybe even when rising from sleep. And, at the heart of the family’s life, its bedrock, is the worship of the Church. Sundays are for the Divine Liturgy. Saturdays are for Vigil, or at least Vespers. Feast days are honored. If honorable reasons prevent the family from coming to Church to stand with the angels and the saints honoring the Feast in the love of God, then the Feast is honored in an appropriate way at home. Perhaps the troparion is sung at the dinner table, candles are lit, an icon of the saint or of the feast is placed on the table.

In such an atmosphere, the home becomes a church. The children are shaped in the love of Christ and His Holy Church, a love that will become the bedrock of their life, a love that is sown in their soul like a seed in the ground to burst forth at the right season into the blossoming of a loving desire for union with the LORD Jesus Christ in that union that surpasses all unions, in which the Heavenly Bridegroom Himself, comes to abide in the child’s heart and the child abides in the love of God.

Need much be said to illustrate the marks of a family whose circle of love goes no further than the life of this world, or the “dust of the ground” (Ps 119:25)? What is dear to this family is virtually everything but the Church! The children are rushed to music or dance lessons, rustled out of bed early to get them to sports activities. Praying as a family both at home and at Church, if it is done at all, is an awkward, inconvenient intrusion into the family’s chosen hectic schedule, so much so that any effort to incorporate it into the family’s daily rhythm very soon withers away. The healing joy of the Feasts gives way, with zeal, for the empty rush of the latest new movie release, or the coming into town of the celebrity du jour. Liturgical seasons of fasting and cultivating the soul in repentance take a back seat to sports, music or school events, or for vacations. And in all of this, Mom and Dad are yelling at each other, kids are arguing and screaming when they don’t get what they want now, because this as far as the circle of affection in which this family lives extends. The spirit that dwells in such a home is the spirit of the world, not the Holy Spirit.

Faith is turning away from one’s idols and giving the heart to Him whom the soul loves. Faith, then, is the work of denying one’s cherished idolatry in order to drink the living waters of the Savior’s Holy Spirit. But the one who engages in this saving work is the one who begins to harvest even now the joy and the peace his soul loves; because in this work, one is turning to the True Light. Its luminous sweetness immediately begins to cleanse and to heal and to satisfy the thirsty, crippled soul. Oh, might we but learn to love the LORD more than the world! Amen!