Who are my mother and brother and sisters?
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Deacon Keith Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
"While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, "Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you." He replied to him, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" Pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother." The Gospel of St. Matthew 12:48-50
A Misinterpretation with implications
This biblical passage is sometimes misinterpreted. Some argue that it stands for the proposition that Jesus was making a comment intended to lessen the importance of his earthly mother.
This "mother is unimportant" interpretation is textually inaccurate and theologically mistaken. It runs contrary to the biblical context of the encounter and rejects the consistent, unbroken Christian tradition. Such a misreading ascribes a minimalist role to Mary in the Christian revelation and consequently in the life of every Christian.
More importantly, in so doing; it can also cause one to miss a profound truth concerning the Christian life and vocation. It can discourage one from digging deeper into the text and thereby grasping a deep, profoundly important insight. This insight has great implications and can lead to a deeper experience of the Christian life.
I stand with the Christian tradition, rooted in the patristic literature (writings of the early Church fathers), and ascribe to the exact opposite interpretation. The opposite of this "mother is less important" claim is what is being revealed through these words and in this encounter. Understood in this light, this passage reveals a framework for an authentically human and relational spirituality, a spirituality of communion.
A Spirituality of Communion
Through our Baptism, we are all invited into the very "family" of God. When we choose to be obedient to the will of God; we enter into an eternal relationship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We actually become a part of the "family" of God; we become "mother" sister" and "brother" to the Lord.
We enter into "communion" with the Trinitarian God.
This interchange was recorded for all time for a purpose. Through it, Jesus teaches us something about the interior meaning of our personal redemption, the redemption of the whole human race and the redemption of the entire created order. The message is simple but profound; God is a God of love and relationship. He has invited us into an intimate and eternal communion.
"Behold your mother; ...behold your son"
In His final act of Self-giving love, revealed for all eternity on Golgotha's Hill, Jesus also elevated and expanded the importance of His mother and "brothers". We read about this encounter in the Gospel of St. John.
Picture the poignant scene, right before He was to breathe His last breath:
"Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. When Jesus saw his mother 11 and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold, your son."Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his home." (John 19:26-27).
From antiquity, the Fathers of the Church have correctly and uniformly taught that this encounter was also about more than the relationship between the Apostle John (whom sacred scripture calls "the beloved disciple") and Mary the mother of the Lord. It was -and is- about the expanded family of the Church, the community that Jesus came to found - and of which He is the Head.
As a final gift, right before He died, He gave His mother to the whole family, through giving her to the beloved disciple John. This was a gift for all of us, an exchange, an expansion of the family. In this exchange, the tradition has long taught, He also entrusted all of us to her.
Something of the interior meaning of this exchange is what is being truly revealed in the passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew with which we began this discussion. Jesus was not minimizing His relationship with His mother through these words given in response to the crowd, He was expanding it. He hungers, through Divine love, to include all of us in the "family circle" of God. In doing so, He invites us on the journey home.
In this exchange, Jesus really opens up the interior importance and meaning of the motherhood of Mary - and through that relationship - the interior meaning of all family relationships. He gives to those with ears to hear and eyes to see, a key insight - familial relationships touch upon, model and make present an eternal mystery into which each of us, who are baptized into Him, are now invited! The Church is a family. Understanding this insight, and living it, is a key to the spiritual life. The Christian vocation is fundamentally about relationship and communion.
All who are incorporated into the Body of Jesus Christ through Baptism begin even now to experience the intimacy, (expressed in family relationships), that is the essence of the very life of the Trinity. Through His life, death and Resurrection (the "Paschal mystery"), He opens a way for every man, woman and child, who chooses to do the will of His Father, to enter into the very family circle of God through truly living our lives in Him.
His Father becomes our Father as we enter, through Him, into the inner life of the Trinity. He underscores this truth right before He ascended when He instructed Mary to tell the disciples "I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' (John 20:17). Understanding this "mystery" requires prayer and revelation. I believe that the eastern Christian tradition can help us to touch the deeper truth.
Looking Eastward for Help
In the Eastern Christian tradition we discover a profound body of theology, spiritual writing and mystical reflection, concerning this inner life of the Trinity. Often considered too "mystical", it is rarely discussed in popular circles, and is left instead for the seminary classroom or the monastery.
That is sad.
The fact is that we mere mortal men and women, now redeemed in Jesus Christ, are all called to participate in the Trinitarian communion. In fact that participation is what the Christian vocation entails. The Apostle Peter, writing to the dispersed Christians in the early Church tells them, and us:
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"His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and devotion, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and power. Through these, he has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature, after escaping from the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire." (2 Peter 1:3,4)
The Eastern fathers of the Church broke open in a profound way the interior truth of this admonition. This body of rich theological insight unlocks a deeper understanding of our Christian belief in the Trinity and what it actually means for each one of us who are Christians.
More than simply a theological or creedal profession, our "belief" in the Trinity reveals the very interior meaning and "end" (in the philosophical sense of "goal") of the Christian life, the Christian Church and the world. It paves the road upon which we are invited to journey, from the beginning (our Baptism) until we enter into eternity. We are called to a nuptial union with God!
The Christian faith- and the Christian life- is a call into an ever deepening relationship with the living God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This God, revealed in Jesus Christ, is tri-personal, yet perfectly One in love. This is the Trinitarian communion of love. We are invited, through Jesus, to somehow participate in the very life of God!
This mystery is difficult to grasp intellectually. That is why we are given more than the intellect with which to comprehend it. We are given the "heart". In the biblical sense "heart" means more than the intellect, emotions or fleshy organ in the cavity of our chest. It refers to the core, the center of a man or woman, the place from which our fundamental choices proceed. This is where true faith begins and grows as we choose to cooperate with grace.
In the Christian faith we profess a Trinitarian belief that mystifies (and in some instances maddens) many. We profess an absolute belief in the Oneness of God while also expressing an equally absolute and, to the unenlightened mind, seemingly contradictory, insistence upon the fact that this One God is manifested in Three Divine Persons. For over two millennia, this belief has been referred to as a "mystery" of the Christian faith. Why?
The "Mystery" of Faith
The term "mystery", used within this theological context, is derived from the Greek word "mysterion". It does not mean what a popular western translation might render it, a sort of puzzle that cannot be figured out. Rather, it is a word that acknowledges the limitations of our human constitution. There are some deeper truths of faith which are simply not capable of being fully grasped. Instead, we are, in a sense, grasped by them. They unfold in our life as we learn to live by faith.
Westerners, infected with the legacy of Rene Descartes and the trajectory of rationalism, empiricism and the thinking identified with the so-called "enlightenment", seem to believe that "knowledge" is obtained by dissecting things on a rack of sorts and asserting control and power over them. We seem to have formed an entire worldview (sometimes explicitly but also implicitly) that equates "knowledge" with the power to dominate. How far from the Semitic mind and worldview (which is the backdrop of the Jewish and Christian scriptures and tradition) such an approach to knowledge-and life-this truly is!
We are invited to "know" God in the sense of actually being in a relationship with Him. It is more of an encounter, an intimate relationship, than it is an intellectual assent. This encounter embraces the whole person and does indeed engage and transform the intellect. We certainly do not have "power" over Him.
However, the biblical understanding of "knowledge" goes much deeper. It engages the "heart" which is more than the fleshy organ at the center of our chest. It lies at the very core of a man or a woman, the place from which their very identity is formed. It is that "heart" that hungers for the living God.
Finally, this encounter will eventually transform our bodies. As Christians we profess in our creed that we believe we shall be raised bodily - and as the beloved disciple writes "we shall be like Him".
This Greek word "mysterion" is also the etymological root of the term that has been rendered "sacrament" in the Western Church. "Mystery" rather than sacrament is used in the Eastern Church to refer to these same seven gifts and encounters with God.
The Trinity is a deeper truth of the Christian faith, a "mystery" - in this theological sense. It is so profound a mystery that even the great theologians, mystics and saints of Christianity have only touched its deepest meaning. They all readily acknowledge that its deepest implications will only be "grasped" in the "beatific vision", a term that in western Christian theology refers to the final moment when, in the words of John the beloved disciple: "...we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is" (1 John 3:3)
The heart of the Christian faith and the real reason that those who have embraced its relational invitation should be motivated to share it with others is not, in the first instance, to "save" them from hell (which literally means "separation" from God). Rather our missionary instinct is to be motivated by love.
We believe that every man, woman and child on the face of the earth has been freely invited into an eternal communion of love with the God who is Love, for all eternity through His Son Jesus Christ. Because we believe that, we should want only the highest good for all men and women. We should want them to have all that God has for them, to be a part of His family.
The Christian faith reveals that this perfect Love who is God is more than a principle, a theory or a series of doctrinal statements -though mature reflection upon Him of necessity has led to all of these. He is a "family" - a community of persons whose perfect love for each other is itself a perfect unity.
The Christian tradition calls this the Trinity.
The Trinity, communion and dance
Coming to "understand" the Trinity is an eternal invitation, but beginning to comprehend the implications of this truth of revelation leads us on the road to coming to understand another vital theological truth, the meaning of the word "communion". Communion also lies at the heart of coming to grasp the mystery of the Church. In fact, it is the path to understanding the very meaning of human existence itself. We are invited, through Jesus Christ, to live in the Trinity and the Trinity in us -this is the theology of communion.
It begins with the profound insight that within God there is a community, a "family" of Divine Persons whose perfect love is perfect unity! Understandably, such a concept is not easily expressed with the limitations of our language.
In reflecting on this "intra-Trinitarian" (within the Trinity) relationship of perfect love and perfect unity between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the great writers of Eastern Christianity referred to the dynamic nature of this relationship with a Greek word "perichoresis".
This word has no literal English translation. Perhaps the best colloquial or popular rendering would be "dance." (Peri - around; Chorea - dance; Perichorea - To dance around....) "Perichoresis" is the Divine Dance of perfect love occurring eternally between the Persons of the Trinity!
This concept is also hard for many Westerners to grasp.
This is particularly true for those who have been influenced by what I call "dis-incarnated" views of the human person that all too often present living a life of faith as though it means having no "fun", celebration or enjoyment in life.
In this kind of narrow understanding of Christianity, dance or many other human joys that are experienced bodily, are considered "carnal" and therefore "evil". How sad. In fact, it is worse than sad. It misses another profound claim of Christian faith that the body is more than a carrying case. We are our bodies. We will be resurrected, the Christian faith proclaims, bodily!
Nothing could be further from the revelation of relationship found in the great spiritual writers and mystics of the Christian tradition than this kind of "dis-incarnated" Christianity. Dance is a dynamic way of expressing a relationship between persons. The spiritual life is a dance! The "dance" of self giving love is already underway within the inner life of God. We are invited to the celebration!
One biblical insight into this beautiful understanding of both the life of God within (and our own lives) is found in the Gospel of John 14:10-11 where Jesus says:
"Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me;"
Jesus is claiming a unity with His Father that is beyond the categories we live in. It is to this very relationship that He later refers in His prayer to His Father before His death. In this mystical prayer, He prays that we actually enter into that relationship by entering into Him:
"My prayer is not for them alone, I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me." (John 17:20 and 21)
How then do we enter into or "live" in Him?
Coming into the family
We begin our life in this family through our Baptism, which is an "incorporation", a sacramental entry into the Church, which is the Body of Christ on earth. This is a "new birth" wherein we are inserted into this relationship with Jesus Christ - and in Him with the Trinity- and in Him with one another. Our very participation in the life of God begins. That participation continues throughout our lives as we cooperate with grace like a dance and leads to our eternal communion.
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This Greek term "perichoresis" is also associated in theological writings with another term, "circumincession." This theologically dense concept is equally as cryptic as it is revelatory.
Circumincession, (also found primarily within the Eastern Christian mystical tradition), refers to the belief that each of the Divine Persons of the Blessed Trinity are so deeply in love with each other that they have perfect unity with one another. They give themselves to one another in love. They interpenetrate the other - each of them "in-dwell" within each other. All of this without losing their own uniqueness! It is here within this context that we begin to grasp the claim that Jesus made to his followers that to have seen Him they had already seen the Father. (John 14:9)
So, "perichoresis" refers to an infinite, intimate, loving flow of gift between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each fully receiving and giving to and from the other. It is a dynamic, not static, reality. And, "Circumincession", reveals the uniquely Christian claim that that all three members of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, inhere or exist within each other in a perfect unity that maintains their perfect distinction!
Well, how does that all affect us? How can all of this relate to our own daily lives? How can we participate in the dance?
Only through prayer can we begin to even grasp the implications of this insight for our own lives. Prayer is the conversation, the path of relationship and intimacy. It is particularly difficult for the western mind to grasp this all because we cannot grasp God. In fact, we are grasped by Him through grace!
This is a key to the very meaning of the inner dynamic life of God and how we are invited into communion with Him. The Trinitarian persons of the One God are in perfect "communion" with one another! They love each other so fully and completely that they are one.
As members of the family of God we are actually invited into that love. The spiritual life is about an invitation to a song, a dance, an intimate, dynamic, growing, living, breathing, transforming relationship of love that has existed for all eternity in God. We are transformed by grace so that we become "sons (and daughters) in the Son."
Many of the greatest of the early Church Fathers, such as Irenaeus and Atanasius, wrote eloquently of this "participation" in the life of the Trinity through Jesus Christ. This participation of human beings in the very life of the Trinity through incorporation into Christ is often expressed in the famous patristic adage "God became man that man may become God."
In the Eastern Christian tradition this exchange is referred to by the term "deification" or "theosis". Understandably, without solid theological and spiritual grounding, it could be misunderstood. Perhaps, that is a part of the reason the terminology fell out of use in Western Christianity after the unfortunate "divorce" that occurred within in the One Church in 1054 A.D. Unfortunately the Orthodox still generally claim that western Christians split from the unity of the One Church and western Christians still generally claim the Orthodox did.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if we put as much energy into recovering our communion as we have in justifying our division? Perhaps we would see the fulfillment of the High Priestly prayer of the One Christ whom we follow "Father, may they be One in us....so that the world may believe... ." (St. John 17)
A worldview and a mission
Flowing from this patristic understanding of the Christian life as a dynamic process of transformation in Christ and incorporation in the life of God flowed a worldview, a way of viewing how Christians were to participate in the created order.
Far from the mistaken escapisms that still abound in many segments of Christianity, this view called for Christians to continue the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ in the real world and the created order. Christians were to see themselves as co-responsible for the recapitulation of the whole creation for union with God in and through their participation in the very life of God and life in His world.
This is what is meant by a "communion" view of Christian mission. It is a "eucharistic" view of the role of humanity in the wonder of creation. In the actual text of the oldest Liturgy of Christianity, at the Eucharistic offering, the priest proclaims that the offering of Jesus is "for the life of the world" (liturgy of John Chrysostom; cf. John 6:51). That sense of offering oneself for the life of the world, in Jesus, lies at the heart of understanding the Christian mission and the meaning of life itself.
We are all invited into that communion through baptism into Jesus Christ! The "dance" of our relationship with Him and in Him and for Him continues through our participation in life in the Church, which is His Body. The Church now extends its circle of invitation through our participation in the world which will one day become His "kingdom". (See, Revelations 11:15).
We are invited into the complete union of love with God and in Him, with one another! This experience begins now in our daily 'ordinary" lives and will only reach its consummation in the life to come where we will be fully given over to God in this "dance", this dynamic life of love.
The invitation to this dance is the meaning and goal of the spiritual life. Our response to God's invitation to the dance opens us up to the very core of the meaning of our human existence!
Conclusion: Joining the dance
The theological concepts discussed in this article are what theologians often call "dense" propositions. Yet, when we begin to grasp them through faith they can become a roadmap and a tremendous gift. The only way that can occur is through living lives of dynamic faith rooted in real prayer. Only if we pray we can begin to make them our own by faith.
This process does not require a theological education. After all, Mary, the mother of the Lord, had none. Neither have many of the great saints and mystics throughout the ages. Too often, however there is a gulf between good theology and prayer.
There shouldn't be.
On the one end of the gulf are those who fail to see that theology is, according to the classical definition, "faith seeking understanding" and on the other, those who fail to see that without simple faith there can be no true understanding of the Christian life.
For me, the words of an old, beautiful, Shaker hymn touch upon all of this at this at a simple level. It is called the "Lord of the Dance":
"I danced in the morning when the world was begun, And I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun, And I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth, At Bethlehem I had my birth.
I danced for the scribe and the Pharisee, But they would not dance and they would not follow me; I danced for the fishermen, for James and John; They came to me and the dance went on.
Dance, then, wherever you may be; I am the Lord of the Dance, said he. And I'll lead you all wherever you may be, and I'll lead you all in the dance, said he.
I danced on the Sabbath when I cured the lame, The holy people said it was a shame; They whipped and they stripped and they hung me high; And they left me there on a cross to die.
Dance, then, wherever you may be; I am the Lord of the Dance, said he. And I'll lead you all wherever you may be, And I'll lead you all in the dance, said he.
I danced on a Friday and the sky turned black; It's hard to dance with the devil on your back; They buried my body and they thought I'd gone, But I am the dance and I still go on.
Dance, then, wherever you may be; I am the Lord of the Dance, said he. And I'll lead you all wherever you may be, and I'll lead you all in the dance, said he.
They cut me down and I leapt up high, I am the life that'll never, never die; I'll live in you if you'll live in me; I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.
Living the Christian life means saying "yes' to this invitation to the dance.
The first disciple, Mary, is the first one first said "yes." Her "Fiat" of surrendered love and life is the path, the way, to emptying ourselves in order to be filled with the life of God. We are all invited to become "mother" and "sister" and "brother" by doing the will of God.
This requires beginning to step, taking the risk to love completely and losing ourselves for God. It is a daily response to the dynamic and eternal invitation to an intimate, all consuming love relationship with a God who takes the lead.
This God revealed fully in Jesus Christ, in both His Divinity and His Sacred humanity, is more than a Creator (though he is that), He is Savior, who can be known intimately by every man, woman and child who responds to His invitation. This response is not a one time act but unfolds in a way of living, in a family.
The primary way in which the biblical revelation and the Christian tradition speak of God is as a Father. All of the references within the Christian scripture and tradition to God as "Father" are much more than what some contemporary "scholars" have dismissed as "anthropomorphisms" (which means an analogy to relationships that are familiar to human persons) nor are they simply meant to be a comparison.
They are better understood as "ontological", in the sense at they reveal the very structure of who God actually is and who we are called to be in relationship to Him.
Family is not our idea. It is God's.
The references to God as Father also unpack the truth about our own identity. Why? Because, we are now related to Him. All of our relationships with one another are ordered to find their fulfillment in our relationship with Him through His Son and in the Spirit, which is the dynamic love flowing between the Father and the Son.
These family terms concerning God, found particularly within the Christian tradition, are not meant to be kept "in the family" but are meant to be given away. They reveal an invitation to the entire human race - for all eternity - to be in a deep communion with the Creator who made every one of us.
He is a Father. Though we became estranged through sin, the wrong choices, He invites us back into the dance through His Son.
In my own Church there is an effort to include women into the heart of liturgical worship and to acknowledge that our history has all too often failed to provide a deep respect for the irreplaceable role of "woman" in the profound revelation that is the Christian faith.
Unfortunately, this commendable goal has received misguided leadership in some circles. One of those efforts, in my opinion, is the effort to render references to God as "gender-neutral." In effect it de-personalizes God and loses the beauty of the full revelation of His Image in men and women.
Sometimes this is manifested in a changing of the Canon at the liturgy (an absolute violation of liturgical and canon law norms). The saddest thing for me as a deacon is when I hear probably well intended folks substitute the word "God" or "Creator" for Father! The unique Christian claim is actually undermined by this substitution. Many religious traditions acknowledge a generic Deity.
Christians call Him "Abba."
It is in finding God as our father that we find our own identity -and our eternal destiny- in Him. St Paul writes to the early Christians in Ephesus: "I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named...." (Eph. 3:14)
This understanding of family as essential and "ontological", not simply metaphorical, is also the context within which we grasp the deeper meaning of the words of Jesus with which we began our examination. He tells us that when we do what He says, we become "his mother....".
We become His "mother" by continuing in history her vital relationship with Him and by responding to the visitation of God in our own lives with a "Fiat" that resembles her own.
We become "His mother" when we surrender our will to His; by allowing His words to "become flesh" in and through us and by living out the canticle of love that is the Magnificat, the dance of love.
We become "His mother" when we allow Him and His life to be borne afresh in our own lives and to be manifested to all those around us through our redemptive lives!
Through living this kind of surrendered "marian" life of love, the mission of the Incarnation and Redemption of Jesus Christ continues and the Love of God is born afresh into the world through His family, His church - his brothers and sisters.
"God so loved the world that He gave His only Son", wrote the beloved disciple John. (John 3:16). This John was the same one to whom Jesus entrusted his mother at the foot of the cross.
God still loves that world that He created and recreates through His Son and every single woman, man and child who inhabits it. He still sends His son into it through those who are willing to continue the family circle of love, the circle of the dance and become "mother and brother and sisters" to Him and to one another. What He is looking for are men, women and children who will be His voice, His hands and His feet -His family.
"When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. "Do you understand what I have done for you?" he asked them. "You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them."
This article is adapted from a new book by Deacon Fournier entitled "The Prayer of Mary: Living a Surrendered Life"
Deacon Keith Fournier is a Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia. He is a graduate of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University and the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Law. He is currently a Doctoral student in Theology at the catholic University of America. Deacon Fournier writes regularly for Catholic Online. His eighth book "the Prayer of Mary: Living the Surrendered Life" is available in bookstores.
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