The Family as the Bearer of Tradition

By Fr. Andrew Jarmus
Director of Missions, Education and Communications
Winnipeg, Manitoba

In our modern world, one of the most debated topics is the state of the family. Generally, if we listen to the radio or watch television, we find two opposing groups represented with their respective views on family.

First, we have those on the left of centre, generally represented in the media by those who would minimise the importance of family, if not “deconstruct” it altogether. For these, the individual reigns supreme. Those who embrace the concept of family are looked upon with either contempt or pity (depending generally on their gender), as either the protagonists or victims of an oppressive, out-dated, “patriarchal” societal institution.

On the other side of the discussion, we find the right-wing, who present their highly-specified image of the “ideal” familial situation. Listening to these people, or reading their literature, one would surmise that all families — to truly be called families, should consist of “dad and mom” (both in their first marriage and preferably high-school sweethearts), a couple of kids, a dog or cat (preferably both), a house with a picket fence and a station wagon or mini-van. People who do not, or cannot, fit this model are looked upon as “okay” people, who are destined to make do with what they have, pining to fit in.

Not everyone who sits left or right of centre holds these extreme views. However, if we base our opinions solely on what modem media reports about the family, we cannot help but surmise that all liberals want to tear the family apart, and all conservatives want people to be clones of the Cleavers or Cunninghams. Left without any perspective from their own tradition, modern Orthodox Christians are left to pick from one of these sides.

The tragedy for us is that both of these opinions do not capture Orthodox Christianity’s understanding of the definition, role and responsibility of the family. Left with secular ideas alone, the whole Orthodox concept of marriage and family gets left on the wayside. This, in turn, leads to the kinds of misunderstandings and negligence towards the Mystery of marriage and family life that we hear of so much in our parishes. Here is an example of what I mean:

One day I was meeting with a woman and her mother about preparations for the daughter’s wedding. The mother, born and raised Orthodox in the “old country”, said to me: “Father, we want to have a traditional wedding. ”

“That’s great,” I said, pleasantly surprised, since I usually have to work through a number of misunderstood issues (such as why we do not allow doves to be released during the service).

“Yes,” she said, “we would like my husband to walk her down the aisle, and then you ask the couple, ‘Do you take her to be your lawfully wedded wife?’ and the rest, you know.

If our Orthodox people do not even understand the rite of Marriage, which takes a little over an hour, how can we expect that they embrace the “Great Mystery” of matrimony and family life which unfolds over a lifetime?

In this article I would like to discuss the Orthodox Christian understanding of family from a very special and important perspective: the understanding of the family as the bearer of tradition.

The Family as Tradition-Bearer

Put very simply, the concept of family as tradition bearer, defines a family as a group of people who embrace and pass on a common story. This “story” can also be called the family’s “tradition.” The very word ‘tradition” comes from a Latin term meaning “to pass on” or “to pass down;” we find similar terms in Creek (“paradosis”) and Slavonic (“peredania”).

Here we must make a cautionary note. In the West, the concept of tradition is popularly seen as something static, archaic, monolithic. In the East, tradition is a living, responsive thing. Put simply, while Western Christianity generally sees tradition as a noun, the Christian East sees it as a verb.

Thus, when we speak of the family as bearing a tradition, we are not speaking of something that is imposed upon family members, whether it fits or not. Rather, we are speaking of a living message, a dynamic witness of: (1) who we are; (2) how we came to be; (3) where we are going; and (4) how we get there.

Taking the example of the Orthodox Christian Church Family, our Holy Tradition bears witness to our belief that: (1) we are the Church, the Bride and Body of Jesus Christ (2) we became (become) Christ’s Bride and Body through the Holy Trinity’s saving actions (its grace) in the world; (3) as the Bride and Body of Christ we seek an intimate union with our Head and Bridegroom in His heavenly Kingdom; and (4) we achieve this union through the struggles of “purification”, “illumination”, and “deification”.

The First Mark of a Family: We Embrace a Common Story

In this understanding of family as tradition-bearer, we see two aspects. The first is that a family is a group of people who embrace a common story or tradition, highlighting its identity, goals (i.e. “telos”), and responsibilities. This idea echoes the words of the Holy Apostle Paul: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or by our epistle” [2 Thes. 2: 15 ].

For a family to be complete, all members must identify themselves as embracing the common story. This does not mean that one has to know the whole story, or have a complete intellectual understanding of it, to be identified as part of the family. Rather, one has to be receptive to the story, as a child who is always receiving messages about behaviour and attitudes.

In the liturgical life of the Church, the vehicle “par excellence” through which we identify ourselves as the family of God is the Creed. In the Creed we identify ourselves as children and creatures of God the Father, we speak of all that God the Son did “for us and for our salvation”, we affirm our anticipation of the Second Glorious Coming of Christ “and life of the world to come”, and we acknowledge the importance of participation in the Holy Mysteries “for the remission of sins”.

It is in this spirit that the Symbol of Faith (the Creed) is understood as an integral part of the Baptismal service. These words would have been particularly profound for our forebears, who would have first uttered them the day of their Baptism and Chrismation. By these words, the candidate declares his or her affirmation of the story of God’s People of the New Covenant. To embrace the story, then, means to believe in it, and to live by it, to let it form us.

The Second Mark Of A Family: Passing The Story On

Embracing the story, though, is only part of what it means to be identified as a member of a family. The act of embracing is an introspective movement; it is directed towards ourselves. If we are left only embracing, we are not members of the family, but consumers or parasites of it. The second element of the Orthodox definition of family leads us out of ourselves, and brings us into our relationship with the world. This is the importance of sharing the tradition with others.

The familial responsibility for passing on the story, the “tradition”, to others is grounded in the Holy Scriptures. In the New Testament, when Jesus sends the Twelve Apostles out on their first Evangelistic mission, He exhorts them: “Freely you have received, Freely give” [Mt. 10:8 ]. Likewise, that which we have freely received from those who have come before us, we are called to freely give to those who come after us.

We find a similar understanding of family as a bearer of tradition in the Old Testament. One of the primary devotional tools of Judaism is the Shema– which is a compilation of Scriptures speaking of God’s Covenant with Israel; it is the Old Testament equivalent of the Creed. Part of the Shema is taken from the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter six, verses four to nine. This Scriptural passage clearly shows the importance Israel placed on families passing on their story to subsequent generations:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord God with all your heart, anti with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and your shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and where you rise… And you shall write them on the door posts of your House and on your gates. ” [RSV]In a similar fashion, the Church Fathers teach that this idea is at the very heart of God’s command to Adam and Eve: “increase and multiply” [Gn. 1:28]. St. Gregory of Nyssa said that “increase” in its very essence meant “grow in perfection,” and “multiply” meant “share the way of perfection with all humanity: “Let not the knowledge regarding God be confined to only one person. Rather, let the Gospel of salvation be declared to the whole earth”.

Likewise, St. John of Damascus says: “The command “Be fruitful and multiply” certainly does not refer exclusively to multiplication through marital union. It is necessary that we understand the lawful commandment more spiritually. For there is a spiritual seed and a conception which takes place in the spiritual womb through the fear and love for God, and it labours and delivers a spirit of salvation.”

True “fruitfulness” then, is not based on whether or not one is married, or whether a married couple can have children. Rather, “fruitfulness” is based on how faithfully and how well one is able to pass on the tradition one embraces down to others. In a similar vein, when we speak of “fatherhood” or “motherhood” in Orthodoxy, we speak not only of biological or legal states, but, in their very essence, we speak of those who faithfully pass on the story to others. It is in this fashion that we speak of the priest as “father,” and likewise call the Saints our holy fathers and mothers.

On the other side of the relationship, our “children” become all those who receive from us, and embrace, the story we are passing on. It is for this reason that it is not inappropriate to include the petitions for healthy children in marriages of older believers. Their “children” might not be the product of biological reproduction, but they can be the product of proclaiming the Gospel through Christ-centred living.

What Constitutes a Family?

Having said this, we now come to an interesting and important conclusion. Based on the definition of family as tradition-bearer, we can say there is wide scope in the Orthodox Christian vision of what a family is. Indeed, the most familiar definition of “family” would be mother, father and children. But in Orthodoxy a family can be any group of people that embrace and pass on a common story of who they are, how they came to be, where they are going, and how they got there. Thus, for example, a monastic community is a family; this is why we speak of monks and nuns in “familiar” terms — father (“abba”), mother (“amma”), brother and sister.

Another example of this can be found in the history of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. In the 17th and 18th centuries in Ukraine we find the emergence of groups of married Faithful who dedicated their time and effort to the enrichment of Church life. They would give financial and material assistance to the Church, and organise Christian philanthropic efforts in their local communities. These groups called themselves “Brotherhoods”.

A modem example of how Orthodoxy views the family can be found in response to a debate which has emerged on the Internet about the ancient Christian rite of “Bratotvorennya” (“The Making of Brothers”), which is referred to in a book by the historian John Boswell (Same Sex Union in pre-Modern Europe.) Boswell’s assertion is that this service is an ancient Christian rite of same-sex marriage. Needless to say, this idea has created a fair-sized stir among both homosexual and homophobic Orthodox Christians. We cannot agree with Boswell that this rite constitutes a same-sex marriage service, because it does not contain the acts of Betrothal or Crowning, which are essential in the Orthodox Mystery of Matrimony. However, based on the idea of family as tradition bearer, we can accept that, through it, two men or two women become “family”. That is, united in bearing a common tradition, they became “brothers” or “sisters,” and take with them into this new relationship all of the implications of these terms. This calls to mind Jesus’ assertion that His true mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God, and keep it.

A final, modern example of how the idea of “family as tradition-bearer” is manifested in Orthodoxy is the “Rite of Adoption,” which is found in some English-language Orthodox Service Books. Through this rite, adoptive parents and children offer their relationship to Christ, asking for that which has been effected legally through the civil adoption also to be effected spiritually by Divine blessing. The Prayer at the Bowing of the Heads for this service states:

“Master, Lord our God, Maker of all Creation, through Adam You forged the first bond of natural kinship in the flesh. Through Christ Jesus, Your Beloved Son, You, O our God, made us Your kinsmen by grace. To You, to Whom all things are known before they take place, these Your servants have bowed their heads, asking Your blessing. As they enter into this bond of parent to child, grounded in Your Fatherhood, may they know the hoped for blessings, discharging their duties in a manner worthy of this new state and of their adoption in You. So that in this, as in all things, Your all-holy name may be glorified, with that of Your only-begotten Son and of Your Holy Spirit, now and always and forever and ever [sic]”By stating that the relationship of the adoptive family is “grounded in the Fatherhood of God,” we acknowledge the common Source for who we are, how we came to be, where we are going, and what we need to do to get there. It is this grounding ultimately that makes any group of like-minded believers family. Thus, in the “Lords’ Prayer” we call upon God as “Our Father” and not “My Father.”

What Does this Mean for Us?

We can see, then, that the idea of tradition-bearing is central to the identity of the family. The way in which we personally embrace our story, and our effectiveness in passing it on to others, greatly influences the way we live in our families and how we teach our “children” to live in a family. To conclude then, let us now discuss what the idea of family as bearer of tradition means for us, in our families.

The first thing we must accept is that every family has a “tradition.” This idea is supported in social sciences in the “System Theory” of family dynamics and therapy. Family Systems Theory states that, in our families, we all learn certain “rules” of behaviour. These rules govern both our actions and our inner attitudes, teaching us about who we are, how we got here and where we are going, which we can identify as the “tradition” which each family bears.

Related to this reality that every family bears a tradition is a second, very important point. The “tradition” which we embrace and bear is not always a healthy one. Family “tradition” can be, and naturally should be, life-affirming. The ultimate example of a life-affirming tradition, of course, is the Gospel. However, a family can also bear life-taking traditions, such as cycles of abuse or addiction. It is not unusual to hear of a person swearing as an adolescent never to fall into the same kind of dysfunctional relationships they saw their parents have, only to follow exactly in the footsteps of mother and father as they themselves get married.

As parents, godparents, grandparents, spiritual parents, we must keep in mind that we are always “traditioning” attitudes and actions on to others, both verbally and thorough non-verbal signals. I recall once, when I was a seminarian, a young priest with two young children asked me, as the son of a priest, what the most important thing I thought a priest could do for his family. I told him that there must be a consistency between what his family hears him preach at the Divine Services and what he “preaches” by his words and actions at home. If there is no consistency, then the message is that our “Church life” and our “real life” are two separate things.

This awareness of our tradition-bearing must shape how we live our lives, both in our immediate family, and in the greater family to which we belong. As Christian family members, we must take on the responsibility of doing two things. First, we must embrace whole-heartedly the Orthodox Christian Tradition with which we identify ourselves. This involves holding and learning the Tradition unconditionally, without compromise. If we look upon even certain elements of the Faith as “up for negotiation,” then we are traditioning the idea that all Faith is up for negotiation.

Secondly, we must share that which we embrace in ways which are tangible and meaningful for our family. Modern psychology agrees that ritual increases family cohesion, the family’s sense of “we-ness”. Some of the means by which we embrace and pass on the tradition are general — such as attending worship together, having a family rule of prayer, keeping fasts and feasts. Other means will be more unique; these can include both cultural expressions of the Faith (such as Paschal eggs, for example), and unique family-specific rituals (for example, a tradition of helping out at a soup kitchen every Thanksgiving).

Also, as Christians, we must remember that we belong to a wider family as well; consequently, we must apply these two precepts which we mentioned, to our wider understanding of family. We embrace the story of the family whole-heatedly, then, not only for ourselves, not only for our kin, but for our parish family, and also for the “family” of the whole human community and the whole of created nature. This is why, for example, the Eucharist is so all-encompassing; that is, we offer the gifts “on behalf of all and for all” (this is especially evident in the Eucharistic Prayer of St. Basil the Great). This is because the Eucharist is the ultimate proclamation and affirmation of who we are, how we came to be, where we are going and how we get there.

Likewise, we must be willing and ready to share the Tradition with all those who seek it out, in ways that will be meaningful for them. This is where language and an awareness of cultural values are of utmost importance. In North America, this work has a two-fold characteristic. First, it involves maintaining those expressions that are meaningful for those who already identify themselves with the family. Secondly, this work involves forming meaningful expressions for those on the outside of the historical Orthodox cultures, who are seeking entrance into the Orthodox Christian family. This work involves a polarity between the spiritual treasures of our “ancestral homelands,” and those potential treasures of our new home; this is the delicate balance the Orthodox Church in North America finds Herself seeking to keep, in our day and age.

In our world we find the family is one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted of all entities. We are boldly told that it is both politically incorrect to use words such as “father,” “mother,” and that those who live outside of the “mom, dad, and the kids” model are either pining to get inside, or spiritually faulted. Often we will hear both messages in the same periodicals or television shows.

Orthodoxy, as usual, provides a refreshing balance in the midst of these extremist views. First, we fervently assert that families are not just those people related to us through genetics or legalistic contract. A family is those who identify themselves as one by embracing and passing on the common story. For Orthodox Christians, this “story” is the Gospel, as expressed through Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition.

Moreover, we maintain that, at its very core, the family is a God-given body, based on the Fatherhood of our God Himself. For this reason, families can have many “appropriate” forms. And in the end, sharing the same Fatherhood, we are all called to live as brothers and sisters, maintaining the Tradition of healing and peace handed down to us by our God and Father.

In fact, Orthodoxy maintains that there is only one True family — the family of God, the “House of Israel,” and all other families are iconic representations of this Family. This reality is a profound and powerful one, leading us to be able to embrace even those who hate us, calling them brother, as we sing during the Paschal Matins. Because, at our core, we all share the common Source of who we are, how we came to be, where we are going and how we yet there — God the Father Almighty, the Maker of all things, visible and invisible.