The Orthodox Family

But if the family is an icon of the Trinity, then it is currently a tarnished icon. One only need look around to see the decay and deterioration of our culture and principally family life. Roughly one in two marriages end in divorce. Absentee fathers, harried overworked mothers, shipped around over programmed kids. Are these causes, or affects? The family is the building block of society, and we see the results of the weakening of the building blocks all around us. Crime, alienation, loneliness, promiscuity, attachment disorder, school violence…. all affects of the breakdown of family.
Fr. Raphael Barberg | 04 December 2008


I gave this talk for the Western New York Council of Orthodox Churches, Sunday Night Lenten Vespers Series, on the evening of the Sunday of St. Grtegory Palamas…….


In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit:

It is with some sense of peril that I approach tonight’s topic….the Orthodox Family. For you cannot speak of family, without at least broaching some sensitive if not controversial issues. If we talk about birth control we risk offending. If we talk about divorce, we risk hurting those who have gone through a divorce. If we bring up home schooling, there is a danger that those employed in that noble profession of teaching youth, will feel that their job is belittled. If we talk of headship, those who have a feminist ideology will no doubt be rankled. If we talk about how wonderful marriage is, we make can make single people feel like 2nd class citizens.

So it is with caution, and yes some fear, that I dive into this, trusting God that His Holy Spirit will move in our hearts and minds, opening them to His light and His Truth. May this unworthy messenger, do at least some justice to this this topic, and to the rich heritage that we have in our Orthodox faith. And may all of you extend to me the unconditional love and grace that I need.

I plan to follow our illumined speaker of last Sunday Night, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, Rev. Dcn. John Chryssavgis, in utilizing his outline, and perhaps building upon it. If you recall, in talking about Creation and the Cosmos, Fr. John spoke of the Icon, as revealing the Kingdom of Heaven, and of Ascesis, as a means of attaining it. Tonight, let’s look at the topic of family through both the lens of iconography and ascesis.

To begin with we must realize that marriage itself, the basis of the family, is indeed itself an icon. St. Paul uses the mystery of marriage to illuminate, the mystery of Christ’s relationship to the Church, and in turn we can understand marriage better, by seeing it as a reflection of this mystery. St. Paul says:

“The husband is head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the Church.”

So understanding the family gives us some insight into the mystery of the Trinity. And conversely, it is in understanding the Trinity (in the limited way that that is possible), that we can understand the meaning of the family.

But if the family is an icon of the Trinity, then it is currently a tarnished icon. One only need look around to see the decay and deterioration of our culture and principally family life. Roughly one in two marriages end in divorce. Absentee fathers, harried overworked mothers, shipped around over programmed kids. Are these causes, or affects? The family is the building block of society, and we see the results of the weakening of the building blocks all around us. Crime, alienation, loneliness, promiscuity, attachment disorder, school violence…. all affects of the breakdown of family.

It is interesting that the Bible and human history, both begins and ends with marriage.

From the very beginning of the Bible, in the Genesis Creation account:

And the Lord God said, It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him… and Adam said: This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; and she shall be called woman, for she came out of man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become flesh (Gen 2:18, 21-24)

From another passage in Genesis:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created his him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them: Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. (Gen 1:27-28)

In Genesis it is revealed that God created Adam, and decided that he should not be alone. So he creates Eve out of Adam’s rib of all things. Eve and then Adam disobey God. Adam goes so far as to blame Eve (and in essence God) instead of his own lack of leadership, thus they are cast from the garden, Adam to earn a living by the sweat of his brow, and Eve to give birth to children in pain.

In the Revelation of Jesus Christ, The Apostle john records for us in chapter 19, the prophecy that the end of the age will be marked by the celebration of the Wedding supper of the Lamb. Jesus being the Lamb of God is the Bridegroom (whom we will praise on the first 3 nights of Holy Week), the Church is his bride.

But between Genesis and Revelation there is also a lot said on the subject. Let’s hear how the Lord address a situation put to him recorded for us in the Gospel of Mark:

And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him: Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife? Tempting him. And he answered and said unto them: what did Moses command you? And they said: Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement and to put her away. And Jesus answered and said unto them: for the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; and the two shall be one flesh; so then they are no more two, but one flesh . (Mark 10:2-9)

So both the new and old testaments teach us that the relationship between husband and wife constitute an image, an icon of the relation between God and his creation, between Jesus, the bridegroom, and his church, the bride. As Jesus is head of the Church, so is the husband head of the wife. This is not a politically correct sentiment in this day we live in. How many of you priests have had couples ask if they could have a different epistle read for their marriage? I daresay all of you have experienced it.

But there is a tension in our modern day, between this concept of God ordained order, and the equality between the sexes that is also present in the Scriptures. Genesis affirms that BOTH men and women are made in God’s image. Jesus’ words and actions show his great love for women as well as men. St. Paul affirms that in Christ there are no men and women, as well as there is no Jew or Greek, free man or slave. This equality of love must be stated and MUST be emphasized.

But the God ordained structure, mist also be highlighted, and not shirked from. For is this not what is lacking in our society? My bishop, ALEXANDER of Ottawa, while preparing for a hierarchical liturgy, made the following remark quite joyfully: “God is a God of order: To bring the Gospel is to bring order into disorder.” And quite frankly, when I look at society I see Sir Isaac Newton’s 2nd law of Thermodynamics in affect, the law of entropy…..that things tend to go from order to disorder…certainly this tendency is a result of the Fall? God created the world, and said that it was good, but with sin, death and disorder entered the world….. What then is the Gospel, if not a reversal of this….order into disorder, light into darkness, life into death…….THUS, the importance of the family in our world today.

According to St. John Chrysostom:

“The love of husband and wife is the force that welds society together. Men will take up arms and even sacrifice their lives for the sake of this love…because when harmony prevails, the children are raised well, the household is kept in order, and neighbors, friends and relatives praise the result. Great benefits, both for the family, and the state are thus produced. When it is otherwise, everything is thrown into confusion and turned upside down.” (Homily 20)

But if the Man is king of his house, then the wife is royalty as well. Are not both man and woman crowned, in our Orthodox wedding service? The wife counterbalances the husband and rules with him, BUT she is always under his authority, as a deacon, or a parish council president, is under the authority of parish priest. A parish can only have one pastor, and the family one father. The buck stops’ somewhere. The New Testament speaks of the First sin as Adam’s not as Eve’s.

Man and woman are crowned, but it is unto martyrdom they are crowned. Which brings us to ascesis. Ascesis, or asceticism, is the process of dieing to self. It is how a tarnished icon is cleansed. St. Paul says in Galatians “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” It is in martyrdom, in dieing to self, lying down your life, that makes this order, this structure, about love, and not about power. Or control. Listen to what St. John Chrysostom say about this:

“So if you think that the wife is the loser because she is told to fear her husband, remember that the principal duty of love is assigned to the husband, and you will see that it is her gain. “And what if my wife refuses to obey me?” a husband will ask. Never mind! Your obligation is to lover her; do your duty! Even when we don’t receive our due from others, we must do our duty. . . . If a spouse doesn’t obey God’s law, you are not excused. A wife should respect her husband even when he shows her no love, and a husband should love his wife even when she shows him no respect. Then they will both be found to lack nothing, since each has fulfilled the commandment given him.” (Homily 20)

I want to talk for a minute about this concept of obedience. This is not a popular word in our society of individualists. But it is the way of our salvation. All of us, not just wives. We as Orthodox believers are called to be obedient to our priest and bishops, our spiritual fathers. And I believe, that it is that much easier for my wife to be obedient to me, to the degree that she knows I strive to live a life of obedience. Because I know that I trust and can obey my pastor, because he is not a renegade free agent, but that he is obedient to Saidna ALEXANDER of the Antiochian diocese of Ottawa, Eastern Canada and upstate NY. And it is because we strive to live a life of obedience, that my wife and I have a right to ask our children to be obedient to us.

But I think Obedience goes both ways. Don’t think for a minute that I don’t strive to be obedient to my wife. Tito Colliander broaches this in the little classic, The Way of the Ascetic. “If your wife tell you to take your overcoat because its going to rain, don’t argue with her, put it on!”  But there are some issues, that a father must take responsibility and not be afraid to take the initiative and perhaps give orders. and the family must then be obedient to him.

For us Orthodox, Marriage is a Holy Mystery….a sacrament. And like all the mysteries of the Church, it imparts grace. It is here, that this polarization between equality and order is healed.

My friend Todd Justin and I, try to visit the Greek Orthodox monastery of St. Gregory Palamas every year. One of the characters over there the Hieromonk Fr. Michael was asking me about my family. I told him in addition to my eldest son, I had two daughters (we now also have an 18 month old son…pray for us!) I said I thought it was great because maybe one I can give to the church as a nun, and the other I can give away in marriage…Fr. Michael tsked at me and waved his skinny finger in my face. “Fr. Dcn! How long have you been Orthodox? Haven’t you realized that your daughters are not your property, to be given away like Chattel? They are free agents, who come to marriage, or the monastery for that matter, of their own free will?”

He is so right. Our wedding service traditionally does not have the father “giving away his daughter.” That’s one Western practice I would like to see discouraged, with a return to the couple being betrothed in the narthex and brought into the church by the priest, thereby emphasizing the couple coming together, of their own free will following Christ, as exemplified by the priest…….

But anyway, the marriage must be entered into voluntarily, with the young couple properly catechized against the false notions that we tend to have in our society….namely that the marriage exists for my “self fulfillment.” W/ the implication of course being that when it stops being fulfilling, then I have a right to move onto something else.

Marriage is a struggle, and if anyone thinks differently, they are obviously not married! But this is our Orthodox faith in action; this is the arena of our souls. Marriage is no less an ascetic practice, then monasticism. In fact I overheard a pious Orthodox woman proclaiming, that ascesis in the traditional sense that we think of, fasting, prostrations, etc., is a gift from God for those who are not married, so they can struggle too!

I joke quite often, that God knows I am weak, and not able, or willing to take on much voluntary suffering on my own. I resist getting up early to pray, and going without meals. So He gave me my wife and kids to be my struggle for me! Yes, you get up awfully early when you have babies and young kids. The struggle is learning to be joyful about it.

Last week we celebrated the victory of the Orthodox over the iconoclasts. There is a certain iconoclasm inherent in our society, that is so willing to demolish the way of life given to us by the Church…recorded in the Scriptures, expounded in the fathers. But it is interesting that science itself confirms what Pious Orthodox Christians already know.

In the past 10 years there has been an explosion of scientific research into sex or gender differences, and on the quality of families. It has been shown that the androgynous theory is wrong…..that men and women are not interchangeable. Other studies have shown the benefits of Traditional marriage. One example is a study that has shown that the bond between mother and child is absolutely critical to language and speech development in toddlers. It is sad that that most people think the answer lay in “better day care and pre-school” and not in encouraging Mom to be at home with her kids.

So, do we trust the Church? If we trust he for her worship and creeds, can we trust her for our lifestyle as well? I believe we can and we must….

Before I wrap up, I wanted to address a couple things. When we talk about the ideal of the Orthodox Christian family, we must be aware of the fallen world we live in, and the fact that we as sinners so often “miss the mark.” I can not and must not use the model given to us for family, as a club to beat my neighbor around with. As with all things, I must be easy on my neighbor, but HARD on myself. I must judge myself and my conduct in how I approach the family, and not worry about those that I am not responsible for.

But I wish to offer hope, for those that perhaps have “missed the mark” in your marriage, in the raising of your kids. There is grace for those who come at the 11th hour as much as there is for those who come at the 1st. Let’s consider St. Photini for a moment.

Photini, as you probably know was the woman at the well. Dysfunctional family? Well, she had five husbands, and at the time Christi encountered her, was shacking up w/ another man she didn’t even bother marrying…She had an assortment of children from these relationships, that were undoubtedly scarred by the unstable childhood. But as we know the story did not end there. She was changed by her encounter with Jesus. She responded to Christ’s stern rebuking, with genuine repentance. She, along with her five daughters and two sons became missionaries and martyrs…. carriers of the living water.

Also to you single people out there. It is true that our church points to the two ways to salvation…..the monastic road and the family road. There is no use in you feeling left out, or like a second class citizen. For you can have the best of both worlds, and I think you must, if you are to acquire salvation, travel down both roads as you are able. For everyone of is in a family. We have parents, sometimes brothers or sisters, nieces, nephews etc, godparents, godchildren…. Shouldn’t we lay our lives down for them? Maybe you would say, but all of my family is deceased, or lives out of state. Are you not a member of a parish? I would ask you about Jesus’ answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

You single people also have an advantage that we married people don’t have. You may think your busy, but I do think you have more time to pray. Many of us married people would love to pray more….pray the hours everyday perhaps. But aside from laziness (ahem), it is truly very difficult to pray more, when you have four kids. So we need you to pray for us. Perhaps you are not called to monastic life. But I think a single person can embrace more of an ascetical existence, then what society thinks is the norm for singles. Instead of spending all you free time golfing or shopping, how about spending some of it for the good of your parish, or some other worthy cause? Ever ask your priest if he needs a hand wish some administrative stuff? How about the young mother across the street, maybe she would appreciate someone taking the kids to the park so she can take a shower or pay the bills?

So this calling of family is for all of us, married and single, monks, nuns clergy, laity.

I close by quoting my 3 Ѕ year old daughter Mary Katherine. I asked her, whats a family? She said, a “A family is when you miss someone.” Do you miss Poppa when he is gone? “Yes!” Why did God give us a family? “So we can love each other.”

Out of the mouths of babes. May God help us learn to truly love each other. Please forgive me.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

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