As we prepare to celebrate the Nativity of Christ, it is customary for all hierarchs to issue a Nativity sermon, an inspiring word about the feast, and homily about the place of the event in our salvation. This year, I wish to take a different approach and discuss another aspect of the event of the birth of Christ into this world.
The birth of Christ as a child, the Incarnation of God the Word as an infant, was part of the healing and re-sanctification of humanity. It was a sanctification of child birth, a great blessing that was bestowed upon Mary in choosing her to be the mother of the Saviour, and upon Joseph in permitting him to be the guardian of the Christ surely reflects the concept of “family” in the will of God. We do not have a “cult of the holy family” in Orthodox Christian piety for sound and specific reasons, but the concept of family and family hierarchy are clear in every revelation of God about our Redemption. Neither the old covenant nor the new testament are “legal agreements.” Both are spousal relationships and both made the “holy nation” a family with God as the Head of the family.
This year, instead of a homily about the Nativity Feast, I would like to say something about this childhood and family which Jesus Christ has sanctified and given to us as an example of the relationship between God and His Church.
The Greatest Accomplishment
In my view, there is no greater accomplishment in life than successfully rearing a child. How do we measure this success? If our child grows up to love God, care for others and earn an honest living, we have succeeded. Anything beyond this is a bonus. Orthodox Christian success cannot be measured by monetary income, worldly titles or degrees, or what the world might consider “prestige”. To be God-loving, church-centered, caring and to earn an honest living – these are our major goals for our children. They will not be better people is they become doctors or lawyers, nor will they be any lesser if they drive trucks or switch boxcars for a railroad.
The difficulty of successfully raising children is very great in our era, but it does not equal the difficulty the children themselves have in developing into decent, Orthodox adults. Children today are faced with temptations, distractions and spiritual warfare which our generation never even dreamed possible. It taxes all a young person’s moral and spiritual resources to resist the immense pressures put upon them by peer groups, television, public advertising, and an increasingly degenerating educational system, and even by teachers and community leaders. It also taxes the inner resources of the parents to teach, influence, endure, understand and guide their children as they struggle through the maze of contemporary life.
Television, advertising and even public schools are teaching our children a set of values and “facts” which are often contradictory to, and opposed to, what we are teaching them.
We do not even need to enumerate specific problems such as drugs, alcohol, rank materialism and undisciplined sensuality. It is an observable reality that many members of the younger generation do not know how to work properly, wish to depend on government programmes, and want “something for nothing.” Material expectations are high, while spiritual values have a very low priority.
Under our present conditions, the concept of the parish as an extended family is extremely important. We depend on our extended families as support groups, as patterns and role models for our children and for our young families. The values, concepts and ethos evident in our extended family units penetrate and help shape our young. They absorb ideas, ways of thinking and their world-view from the environment which they are most exposed to. Since peer pressures are great, the peer influence of our extended Orthodox parish family can be vital in helping to offset the peer pressures in public schools and neighborhoods.
It is very important, therefore, that our parishes strive to be loving, joyous, Christ-centered extended families. Our children should always feel an atmosphere of warmth, love and joy in our churches. They should sense that they are loved, wanted, understood and highly valued. They should feel comfortable and at home in church. We should take great care to develop such an atmosphere and develop as many family activities around the church and the extended family of the parish as possible. Our church schools should be vital and take a central place in our planning.
At the same time, we must be cautious to remain realistic in our expectations. There is a danger among Orthodox people of trying to superimpose “the old country” on our Canadian and American peoples. Often the “old country,” the “way it was done there,” exists only in fond memories and never did exist in reality, or else it relates to a simple, uncomplicated world of decades ago. Among us Traditional Orthodox Christians, there is an added danger of puritanism. We often worry so much about minute, ritualistic matters, or fine points of the law, that we simply crush and defeat our own young people and our own families. This can be especially destructive if we begin to regard parishes as “married monasteries.” This not only results in a cult-like attitude, but often such an attitude seeks to impose utterly fantastic and unrealistic standards and rules upon married clergy, families and parishes. In the end, this can cause chaos in families, and crush the spirit of the people under the weight of burdens which simply cannot be fulfilled.
Parents are now raising children under the very worst of circumstances. They need consolation, moral support, educational back-ups, family prayer rules which are based on the reality of life in the world, and vital parish lives.
Often both parents must work. There is no way out. A father might have to work evenings, swing-shifts or “graveyard.” Children are burdened with heavy loads of homework, wives are work out at the end of the day. To suggest that families “must” fulfill an almost monastic typikon of prayers in their ikon corners, when they often cannot even take all their meals together, and children need two or three hours for homework assignments, is irrational and spiritually destructive. It leads to frustration and deep resentment.
There is also danger in trying to impose extravagant rules of dress upon people, insisting that all Orthodox men must have beards, pressuring all people to use prayer ropes in public, and other practices which, in our North American society, rapidly becomes cultish, and lead to pride and delusions.
It often turns out that married people, labouring under the huge burdens of raising a family, paying a mortgage and struggling to make ends meet, are being saddled with rules and expectations that we monks ourselves find difficult to fulfill, even though we are free of the hindrances families have to face in trying to fulfill them.
I firmly believe that our Orthodox Faith is a practical religion, and that Orthodox mysticism is a practical mysticism. The most urgent need for us in our time is to develop an Orthodox Christian way of life in North America which is uncompromising in our faith and path of life, but which is in touch with reality. Our Orthodox Christian life must be practical. The practical function of our spiritual life is our salvation.
Every Orthodox Christian family should strive to the best of their ability to fulfill the canonical fasts and the prayer life prescribed in our tradition, and we should always, with God’s help, strive to make our best better, ever growing and developing.
No family, however, should feel guilty or consider itself to be inferior in its Orthodoxy, if they cannot completely fulfill everything. We do our best, and God accepts our effort if it comes from a sincere heart.
The parish, as an extended family, should strive to grow and develop continuously, each family helping and supporting the others. Our faith forbids us to judge another person’s spiritual life, and it is deadly to the life of a parish if the pharisaism of “spiritual castes” appears.
Ultimately, our parish should be a resource of love, mutual support, shared strength and spiritual unity, which each family can draw upon. Parents should find the parish a support system, teenagers should find in it a sense of security and certainty, children should find the parish a place of happiness, love, understanding – an extended family of spiritual aunts and uncles.
We monastics should do our best, not merely to think of ourselves as “spiritual examples” (which can be quite prideful), but to be resources for education and inspiration to our struggling families. We all have a role to play in the life support system of our Orthodox Christian families. The times we live in and the grave spiritual dangers of our times require that we all fulfill our responsibilities to the fullest.
Remember, the family is not only the basic unit of God’s Holy Church, it is the ultimate unit of His Church. There is no greater ministry than the ministry of the Orthodox family, no higher responsibility or accomplishment than raising God-loving children.
Let us all struggle with all our strength to make our parishes such spiritually united and joyous extended families, that in our mutual love and oneness, the very mystery of redemption may shine forth from them like lanterns filled and well trimmed, for the whole world to see.
With love in Christ,