Word Magazine May 1998 Page 5-6
THE CHURCH COMMUNITY AS FAMILY
By Fr. Paul Albert
We would all agree that our church community is a family in Christ. Perhaps one of the simplest, yet most profound attributes of this church family in Christ is the act of begetting spiritual sons and daughters. Along with this is the responsibility, like that of any parent, to raise these spiritual sons and daughters to maturity in Christ. I hope to share with you some personal insights on this high calling.
Most of us mark the decisive moment we define as the beginning of life: our physical birth and emergence into this world. Yet, the more distinctive moment to be marked in one’s personal history is the moment, the very evident moment in time when an individual begins to live in a Christian way: when the characteristics of the Christian life are born and evidenced. At the heart of the Christian life is communion with God, which is made possible by attaching ourselves to His Son, Jesus Christ.
From this perspective, I entered the Christian world on a cold winter day in 1954, shortly after the great feast of Christ’s Nativity. My Jhidoo, Ibrahim, decided it was just too cold to be taken to the church for a Baptism. So, this first Mystery, through which I would be vouchsafed the gifts of God’s grace, was administered at home with my family and Godparents present. It was at home, in the “little church” that I entered into the house of God, and was clothed in the garment worthy of God’s kingdom. The hands that lovingly brought me up from the Baptismal waters of new-life were those of Fr. Paul Romley, after whom I was named.
How can we properly deem the value of this most precious gift extended to the infant so soon after physical birth? At Baptism the child is lifted from the clutches of the evil one, from all his angels, and all his works, and all his service, and all his pride. How can a child properly thank his faithful parents and extended family in Christ for providing the opportunity to become an heir “of God and joint heir with Christ” (Romans 8:17)? By virtue of this gift of Baptism, the Kingdom of heaven belongs to the newly baptized soul, who becomes a member of the heavenly household. Likewise does the child now enter into the household of his new family in Christ, his church community.
You might say that an infant does not have much choice in the matters of early life: his birth, where he lives, what he does, etc. Many contemporary Christians do not understand the dynamic and power of infant Baptism, because they do not perceive the inner workings of the Holy Spirit and the participation of the greater family in Christ. The seed of life in Christ is placed within the infant, at first in a hidden manner, but it does not lie dormant. The Holy Spirit acts as an educating power and revealing light within him. Divine grace begins from this early time to produce the fruits of the Spirit. At the time of the Baptism the sponsors (and parents) declare to God and the Church that when this child comes to maturity, he will freely dedicate himself to God. With proper spiritual formation, upon maturity he will rejoice in the grace that has been invested within him, and show profound gratitude for the inheritance delivered to him at infancy, when he could not act personally. At the moment of his conscious awareness and choice, the Christian life becomes his own, not only by grace, but also by freedom. This is the prayer of the Godparents and family in Christ: that this tiny infant, reborn in the waters of Baptism, when he grows up and comes to awareness, will willingly dedicate himself to God. They pray that he will receive out of his own desire the grace which has been actively cultivated within him.
We are no doubt impressed with the ongoing studies that reveal the potency and life-long impact which a positive, spiritual environment has upon the infant in the formative period of life. From birth, the family setting provides the healthy and holistic atmosphere necessary for the proper upbringing of the child. The child in a Christian home grows up with the blessings of stability, protection and direction.
We should consider here the profound influence of the Holy Mysteries and the extended family in Christ that embodies the whole way of churchly life. Now, in this fuller setting, the child draws with his every breath the rarefied saving atmosphere, purified by the faith and piety of his spiritual family. Blessed are the childhood memories recalling my mother signing each of us with the Sign of the Cross before going to our rest. Or hearing prayers offered up to God throughout the day, at the commencement of various tasks (especially the fervent ones asking for patience in the raising of four boys).
Growing up, the child is taught far more from observing the actions of his parents and guardians than by their words. He is joined to a living Lord in a lively and participatory way when, from youth, he is frequently and consistently brought to Communion. Values are imparted from generation to generation: if the parents treasure their life in Christ, the child is likely to be sanctified and nourished likewise. Having a father who was a Marine, we were “drilled” each Sunday before Liturgy on how to properly receive the Eucharist. The four boys would form a single file, with hands crossed over the heart, heads tipped back just so, and mouths open like newly hatched robins awaiting their supper. Thus was imparted a life-long love and devotion to Holy Communion. We do not usually see in the moment how the little things have such far-reaching effects.
Frequently taking children to church also exercises goodly influence: it teaches the child that church is his home. What could be more comforting for the child than to be surrounded by his family in Christ, at home in the midst of his spiritual house? And what could be more fondly remembered when waking in the middle of the night, sitting up in the pew, gazing in awe and wonder at the radiant souls ablaze in the Paschal light, shouting “Christ is Risen!”? Or the image of a loved one standing next to the child at Liturgy, tears of joy streaming down his cheeks, as the priest passes by during the Great Entrance? Enveloped in such a grace-filled atmosphere, the child’s family extends even to his invisible family, to the company of his guardian angel, his protector and guide, God-given at Baptism.
So, in his early development, the child is truly a vessel, into which is poured the grace of God, the Holy Mysteries, the piety of the whole life of the Church, the fervent prayer of the parents and family in Christ. All that is good acts both within and without the child. The church family joyfully beholds, in this newly emerging member, a unique and blessed gift from God.
Sometimes we wish the story ends here, in a happily-ever-after scenario. However, with growth and development of soul and body comes the emergence of the struggle between good and evil. Just as the longing for God grows in the young soul, the fallen and sinful nature does not lie dormant, but vies for a resting-place, and ultimate control. Here, at this juncture, the young member of the family in Christ must be well-guided by guardians versed in the art of spiritual warfare. By good example, the young person is shown how to conduct and direct the developing powers of the soul and body so as not to become captivated by the pleasures of the flesh, pride, self-will and curiosity. The family in Christ, the church community trains up the young member in the art of spiritual warfare: how to identify temptation and sin, how to separate himself from and master these tendencies, ultimately rendering them powerless.
Again, it is amazing what childhood memories are synthesized into an adult way of life! From infancy we know of the primordial relationship with food. We are introduced to the spiritual principle of curbing and mastering our passions through this medium. Nothing was more intriguing to me as a young adult than seeing members of my church family sincerely and fervently practicing the fasts of the Church. Especially during the Lenten weekday services, the fasting practice of my family in Christ gave witness to the truth that spiritual practices could be held in common, further uniting us to one another. This common practice, even seen through the eyes of a young member, was an all the more beautiful and loving sacrifice when offered up to God.
One of the first great passages of life, after the initial awakening to good and evil, is the child’s growing realization that he is distinct from his parents, and that his parents are not God. Also, this awakening affects his view of his extended family in Christ. The young person now becomes observant that those whom he has looked up to are not perfect; they too are struggling with sin and their own shortcomings. Worldliness, sin and the devil impose distraction, temptation, and willful separation: within the individual and in the church family. What becomes vitally important at this junction is that the young person see the struggle — often a heroic struggle against sin. What are the great lessons the church family in Christ provides her young member at this point?
Young people need to see faithful Christians who take their life in Christ seriously. Maturity in Christ must be defined actively: “When I grow up, my chief works must be to please God.” I am taught to conquer the sin of pride when I see my aunts and uncles forgive each other, and humbly seek forgiveness for their failings. I am taught to conquer the sin of lust when I see members of all ages freely sacrificing their creature comforts during the fasting periods. I am taught to conquer the sin of lukewarmness when I see the fervor of an elderly siti, who can barely put one foot in front of the other, prayerfully present for every service. I am taught to overcome the sin of indifference by tagging along with my father on a visit to an inactive parishioner’s home, a visit which ends with our host moved to tears, and in church the following Sunday. I am taught to conquer the secular images of the world by venerating the images of the Kingdom of Heaven. I am taught to conquer the sin of disobedience by respectfully submitting my will to a spiritual father.
The church family also provides ongoing instruction in the Faith. At this time of young adulthood, the process of learning needs to be permeated with Orthodox Christian principles. In this way the young person is given a measuring stick of truth. Gradually, godly and upright characteristics take hold and are revealed before him. Good and pious church school teachers help the youth to realize the obligation, given by God, to live and act according to His commandments and precepts. This commitment to an Orthodox way of life does not only take its course through the present life, but instills the awareness of our heavenly homeland, where eventually all our thought should be directed.
This last point becomes indispensable as the child moves into the teen years. Just as parents strive to expose their children to a wide and diverse palette of activities and experiences, so does the church family seek to expose her children to opportunities that might provide an encounter with the other-worldliness of our Faith. Here, I recollect one of the life-changing activities my church family provided to me. Thank God for clergy and teen advisors who are mindful of the monastic dimensions of our Faith. Around 1968-69, one of the first retreats to the Transfiguration Monastery in Ellwood City involved teens from my home parish. There, we first encountered Orthodox women living in unceasing prayer. For me it was like placing an icon before us: this is what it must be like to live as Adam and Eve did — in unbroken union with God! Walking down a muddy rural Pennsylvania road with the Abbess, Mother Alexandra, very few words were spoken. Yet she helped open for me the path to the spiritual life and a long-term reverence for the MYSTERY of God.
With the emergence of individual identity as a young adult comes the tidal wave of worldly influences. The exercise of a newly-found will quickly moves into an exploration of new experiences and impressions. A teen can often feel alone and not understood by others. An emerging self-awareness brings up new questions: What is my place? What is my place in my family and in my church family? New circles of friends are made during this time. A teen can sometimes seem to be aimlessly wandering, but more times than not he is seeking companionship in accordance with the deeper inclinations of the heart.
The church family is now needed more than ever. Teens must discover and assume real work as full members in their church community. Attend a Vespers at Antiochian Village Camp and witness the level of spiritual participation our teens are capable of! This is a good time for the church community to help channel and direct all the altruism and energy of youth into works of mercy and charity in the greater community. Teens are deeply disturbed by societal conditions and need to have direct means of addressing their concerns. Advisors, clergy, and college-age peers will find the most soul-searching and meaningful communication with teens in this setting of charitable activity. It also offers a vital anchor to young people through turbulent waters that can cut our young members adrift.
Parents, knowing the forces at work in today’s society, all the more recognize the indispensable role of the church family in begetting spiritual sons and daughters and guiding them to maturity in the Faith. Laying a foundation as here touched upon will hear fruit in many ways. It will help young adults continue fighting the good fight in their college years, when a secular and godless mind can hit them full force. There will be light to perceive good from evil, truth from lie, God from the deceiver. There will be resolve of will that will continue to sharpen the pursuit for the kingdom of God in the midst of pursuit for a career in the world.
Our church family on this continent has struggled for decades, like any good parent, in the upbringing of generations of spiritual children. You (and some of the family who have transferred their membership to the heavenly Church family) were there to lift your children out of the Baptismal waters of rebirth. You were prayerfully and responsibly there through all the passages of life. You continue to lift up your spiritual children to God, beholding with joy how that which God has invested in you has been multiplied. Your children continue to be vessels of God’s grace and many blessings. They have been filled with a measure of their heavenly Father’s Spirit. In your children can be found love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
There are many things that bring us joy in life. Few can compare with the joy that comes with begetting spiritual children. Such a profound honor God bestows upon us unworthy ones! Maybe one joy surpasses this. That could be the joy in heaven when our children’s children take up the same high calling, continuing the family in Christ until our Lord comes again.
Fr. Paul is pastor of St. Elias Church, Sylvania, Ohio