Home | Doctrine | Saints | Icons | Scriptures | History | Calendar | Councils | Links

Orthodox Spirituality - Community

On Spiritual Kinship

by Archpriest Sergei Shukin

I. Why did Jesus Christ leave His home?

      When I was a young man and began to make a deliberate study of the Gospels, certain passages in them puzzled me. Later, they all became clear, for the Gospel contains no contradictions.

      One of my doubts concerned the Savior's departure from His parents' home, sundering, as it were, all ties with His family. Let us focus our attention on this incident which to this day disturbs even faithful people.

      The Savior grew up in the pious Hebrew family of His supposed father, Joseph. On the Sabbath, all members of the family went to the synagogue of Nazareth; on the Jewish Passover, they made the three-day pilgrimage to Jerusalem on foot; all of Joseph's sons were in complete submission to their father. In short, theirs was a model Jewish family, which fulfilled the whole Law and perhaps certain "traditions of the elders" as well. From such families came zealots for the traditions of the fathers such as Saul, or the "wealthy youths" who, like Saul, considered themselves righteous men.

      And suddenly the order of this family was infringed upon. Jesus, the youngest son, left His family and began to lead a singular life: He went throughout all of Galilee, preached in synagogues, and what is more, associated with people of dubious repute. To the provincial town of Nazareth this was incomprehensible and scandalous. Not surprisingly, His whole family was disturbed and decided to take steps to return Jesus to an ordinary mode of life.

      It can be surmised that Jesus's family arrived at this decision after He came forward in the Nazareth synagogue and applied to Himself the prophecy of Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He hath anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He hath sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of the sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised" (Lk 4:18). The impact of these words on Jesus was immense, but the reaction to Him was varied: some "wondered at the grace-filled words that proceeded out of His mouth;" others began to test Him saying: "Physician, heal Thyself; whatever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in Thy country." But when Jesus answered them with the words of the Sacred Scriptures that speak of the persecution of the prophets in Israel, certain of the Jews in the synagogue "were filled with wrath, and rose up, and thrust Him out of the city, and led Him unto the brow of the hill . . . that they might cast Him down headlong" (Lk. 4:28-29). Understandably, Jesus's family was alarmed, for He was threatened not only with general censure, but His life was in danger. And there appeared more scribes from Jerusalem who maintained that: "He hath Beel'zebub, and by the prince of demons casteth he out demons" (Mk. 3:22). And the Evangelist Mark relates further: "And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on Him; . . . There came, then, His brethren and His mother, and, standing without, sent unto Him, calling Him. And the multitude sat about Him, and they said unto Him, Behold, Thy mother and Thy brethren without seek for Thee. And He answered them, saying, Who is My mother, or My brethren? And he looked round about on those who sat about Him, and said, Behold My mother and My brethren!" (Mk. 3:21, 31-34).

      Such a reply by the Savior has disturbed many. How could the Savior answer His mother in such a manner, when she had come to Him? But here we must take into consideration the following two circumstances.

      1. It is difficult to assume that the initiative of "taking hold of Jesus" was His mother's. The All-holy Virgin, having seen so many signs concerning her Son, could hardly be disturbed by His conduct. Doubtless, the so-called "brethren of Christ" were more disturbed about Him than anyone else, concerning whom the Evangelist John writes that: "His brethren did not believe in Him" (Jn. 7:5). If they brought His mother with them, it was only that their meeting with Jesus might have greater authority. In regard to this, according to Jewish law, a man over thirty years of age could act in complete independence and had the right to interpret the Holy Scriptures in the synagogue.

      2. The Savior Himself never transgressed His obligations in His relationship to the All-holy Virgin. Even on the cross He was concerned about her future and appointed the Apostle John to be her son. Therefore, we must attribute the whole of His answer not to the All-holy Virgin, but to His "brethren", who had decided to interfere in His preaching activity. And finally, His answer had to show those listening that He considered His preaching to be a more important matter than His relationship to His "brethren", who did not believe in Him and wanted to interfere in His preaching. We can assume that His "brethren" believed that He had "taken leave of His senses," but it is impossible to think that the All-holy Virgin could have conceived of any abnormality or possession in her Son.

      Thus, we can consider that the "family conflict" was in this instance brought about not by the All-holy Virgin, but by the conduct of the "brethren". In such an instance we can see nothing blameworthy in the words of the Savior. For example, we can even bring forth similar examples in the life of an Orthodox priest, when his relatives ask to see him while he is fulfilling his duties or serving in church. For the priest to refuse such a meeting is quite proper, for to serve God is a primary concern in comparison to family meetings.

      But from this occurrence in the life of Christ we can draw this conclusion: the Savior wanted to show that spiritual kinship is higher than blood relationship.

      This will become more understandable for us if we further acquaint ourselvs with Christ's view of family relationships.

II. A Man's Enemies shall be Those of His Own Home

      Christ did not utter these words from Himself, but quoted them from the Prophet Micah (7:6). In this chapter, the prophet denounces the customs of the people and speaks of the servering of relations even between members of the same family. In order to understand what the Savior wished to say in this passage, we must recall when it was quoted. This was at the end of the instruction to the apostles before sending them off to preach. The Savior said: "Think not that I am come send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword; For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of Me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.And he that taketh not his cross and followeth after Me, is not worthy of Me. He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for My sake shall find it. He that receiveth you receiveth Me; and he that receiveth Me receiveth Him that sent Me." (Mt. 10:34-40).

      When Christ spoke these words, He may have recalled His clashes with His brethren and was warning the apostles of this. He knew that besides outside enemies, they would encounter enmity from their blood relatives.

      Some people to this day think that Christ must unite all men. But this is not so, for many passages in the Gospels say the opposite. In His parables Christ speaks of many being called, but few chosen. Speaking of the inescapable persecution of His followers, He once said: "Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom" (Lk 12:32). In His high priestly prayer, He said: "And they have received them, and have known surely that I came out from Thee, and they have believed that Thou didst send Me. I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which Thou hast given Me; for they are Thine" (Jn. 17:8-9). Such division comes from the whole teaching of the Gospel concerning sin and repentance.

      This means that the Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of the elect, who are bound to each other by purely spiritual bonds. The commandment of love - the new commandment of Christ - must be the foundation of the new relationships between people related to each other spiritualy.

      But in the everyday world, other relationships much predominate, more of the fleshly and material sort, in as much as people are "of the flesh and given to sin." In family life, in particular, family egotism occupies the first place, in contradiction to the commandments of God. Although God says in the fifth commandment: "Honor thy father and thy mother," in the first commandment He requires that we love our Heavenly Father above all else. And if the fifth commandment promises a long life on the earth, love for God brings blessedness in the heavenly mansions. It follows that family relationships cannot be placed on a higher plane than service to God.

      Now certain events in the relationship of Christ to those of His household become more understandable to us. He could not allow love for those of His household to be greater than love for God. He taught that love for those closely related in the flesh has its limits, since spiritual relationships are on a higher plane than blood relationships. Because of this, He taught that there would inevitably be conflicts between His disciples and their relatives.

      The main thing that Christ calls to our attention is that all our relationships with people be imbued with a spiritual beginning. He taught His followers not to be guided by family egotism, not by "fleshly reasoning," but by true love, which leads to the creation of spiritual kinship between people, that Christians might truly become "brethren and sisters in Christ."

      In order to show how this principle applies in practical life, I would like to cite some examples of cases when our obligations as Christians conflict with family obligations.

III. Examples of Family Conflicts

      In the lives of individual families we rarely see spiritual unity. Even should the father and mother be one in spirit, the children do not always emulate them. During these times in particular, the rift between the generations is more pronounced, because it is now more difficult for parents to shield their children from outside influences. These influences come from friends, school, books, televisions, movies, and so forth.

      We see that even in the most fortunate, believing families, unbelieving children grow up. For example, such was the case with my own brother. There were the two of us, he two years younger than I, but this was not the reason for our difference. There were inner reasons; our parents were religious people - this influenced me, but my brother was far from religion. As he grew to maturity, he further estanged himself from us, striving to be independent, for in life he searched only for what was external and pleasant, and did not like to remain at home. He was an example of when children feel themselves to be "strangers" in their own families.

      In other families, the split occurred over politicial ideologies. Thus, in the families of the Russian nobility of the nineteenth century, children with the most extreme revolutionary ideas grew up, who rejected their homes and "went to the people," or to the revolutionary underground. Here the reasons for conflict were a difference of ideologies, that is, internal reasons. We know that socialism and communism are in themselves forms of religion and, moreover, are very intolerant of other convictions. Yet we know also of instances where believing children left their families for religious motives. Surely, many of us know that Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky), the first head of our Church Abroad, grew up in a family of the ranking nobility in St. Petersburg. His parents wanted him to enter the university and to prepare for the civil service. But on completing high school, he entered the theological academy and there received the monastic tonsure.

      I will cite yet another example, this time from literature. Turgenev, in his novel, A Nest of Nobles, portrays the girl Lisa Kalitin, who, following an unsuccessful romance, entered a convent. She was a believer, and among her motives were those of a purely religious nature: "I know everything," she said, "my sins and others, how Papa acquired his wealth ... All this must be atoned for ..." Although Turgenev himself was far from religious, his artistic talent drew forth this portrayal of a break within a family.

      Now we shall see examples of a dramatic break within families on grounds of mutual misunderstanding. This developed within families due to insufficient spiritual kinship. But similar conflicts are found in the lives of the saints. For examples, the Venerable Theodosius of the Kiev Caves and Macarius of Zheltovoda, left their families to become monks. Only in rare instances, as in the family of St. Sergius of Radonezh, where the parents understood the spiritual strivings of their son, was the departure to the monastery accomplished with the parents' blessing.

      Similar sharp conflicts occur in families in connection with the marriages of the children. Of course, in our times, it is very rare for parents to force a girl to marry against her will; but in the last century such instances were far from rare. If we examine the reasons for this, we will again find a difference in outlook between the parents and their children. Sometimes the parents, it would seem, love their children, and in their own way wish them happiness; but the children search for their own partner in life. Quite often similar conflicts arise on the grounds of religious differences. Of course, in such cases, it turns out that the independent choice of the children is unsuccessful and ends in divorce. Here the usual reason for the divorce lies in the absence of a common world view between husband and wife, in view of the religious division.

      These facts can show us why the Orthodox Church considers marriages between persons of different faiths with unbelievers undesirable. The reason is this: the absence of a common faith and different views of life.

IV. Division and Unity

      Until now I have spoken about reasons for family division in order to show that Christ brought only division. But in fact, Christ also shows Himself as the source fo unity for people. He divides people, but does this in order to unite them in the spirit and in the truth. He frees believers from the dominion of sin and unites them in His Church.

      We see that from the very beginning of His preaching the Savior gathered the disciples around him, separating them from the Jews. In essence, we can observe two parallel processes under the influence of Christ: He freed His followers from Old Testament understandings of things and taught them with a new relationship to God and man. It can be said that both these processes continue in the world today, and that they will end only with the Second Coming of Christ, when the final, eternal division will take place. Then the fullness of the Church will begin, the eternal unity of the faithful, "prepared for them since the creation of the world."

      Studying this process of the creation of the Church, we can become convinced that Christ will unite the faithful with new, spiritual bonds which will give them a particular closeness and a mututal understanding which we may call spiritual kinship.

      To follow this process of unification, let us return to the beginning - to the Savior's departure from Joseph's home to preach. Thanks to such a division, Christ brought together His twelve apostles. Further, He organized another circle of disciples - 70 followers, among whom were included the so-called "brethren of the Lord." Other Jews followed them, such as Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, Saul/Paul, and later the whole "Church of the gentiles," and, finally, the whole universal Church.

      Turning to the history of the Christian Church, we can establish that She grew in proportion to the establishment of inner spiritual ties among her members. Amongst them, all the traits of spiritual kinship developed, but on a new and higher plane. Let us recall, for example, several instructions of Christ to His disciples:

      "Be ye not called Rabbi; for one is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon earth: for one is your Father, Who is in Heaven"(Mt. 23:8-9). Here the Savior sets forth a new view of the terms of blood relationship: heavenly, instead of earthly; eternal, instead of temporal.

      He abolished the absolute authority of previous relatives according to the flesh. For example, when one of the disciples asked Christ to allow him to bury his father first (i.e. to wait until the death of his father), He replied: "Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their dead" (Mat. 8:22).

      We are sometimes struck by such categorical demands of Christ concerning the complete sundering of previous bonds of relationship. But He undoubtedly saw that without a decisive denial of those close to them, that some of His disciples would not be able to follow Him. In the life of the Venerable Macarius of Zheltovoda, there is the following typical occurrence. Macarius left his parents while still a youth, but they later learned that he had taken the monastic tonsure. His father came to the archimandrite of the monastery and asked permission to see his son. But the young monk answered: "My father is the Lord my God." The father, standing at the window, recognized his son's voice and cried out: "My child, Macarius, come to me!" But the son answered: "It is better that we see each other in the eternal life, Father, than on earth ..." and he consented only to extend his hand through the window for his father to kiss.

      Let us take into consideration the type of mutual relationships established by the apostles in the new Christian communities. In his first epistle to Timothy, the Apostle Paul writes: "Rebuke not an elder, but entreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren; the elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity ... But if any provide not for his own, and especially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel" (I Tim. 5:1-2, 8).

      In the first epistle to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul turns to them as a loving father to his children: "I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you. For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me" (I Cor. 4:14-16).

      In conclusion, one can cite the history of the slave Onesimus who belonged to Philemon, apparently a member of the community in Colossae. Later, Onesimus escaped from his master, but was imprisoned in Rome, in the same prison where the Apostle Paul was awaiting his trial by the emperor. They recalled their meeting at Philemon's and under Paul's influence, Onesimus repented and accepted Christ. Paul decided that Onesimus was obligated to return to his master, and in his epistle to Philemon he writes: "I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds; which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me; whom I have sent again, thou therefore receive him, as part of me ... not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?" (Philem. 10-12, 16).

      Philemon later freed Onesimus, who was made a bishop and died as a martyr during the persecutions of the emperor Trajan.

      And so, we see that among Christians, mutual relationships of a spiritual nature predominated: instead of a father by flesh, spiritual fathers; instead of children by the flesh, spiritual children; and all together, brothers and sisters in Christ. These new bonds are considered by the Church to be not temporary, but eternal, for Christian love "never ceases" (I Cor. 13:8).

      The Savior Himself foretold such mutual relationships in the Church. On one occasion, the Apostle Peter came to Him with the following question: "Lo, we have left all, and have followed Thee." And the Savior answered: "Verily I say unto you, there is no man that hath left house, or brethren,or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for My sake, and the Gospel's but he shall receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come, eternal life" (Mk. 10:28-30).

      Let us now consider: has this promise of Christ been fulfilled?

      Of course, it has been fulfilled, but not literally, in the physical sense, but in the spiritual plane, on the foundation of Christian love. During the life of Christ, the apostles already had, as it were, a new family, bound together with spiritual bonds. After Christ's Ascension, His disciples, as is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, "all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, wit the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brethren" (Acts 1:14). Further on we read: "And all that believed were together and had all things in common; and they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart" (Acts 2:44, 46).

      The first Christian community in Jerusalem appears to us as the prototype for future parishes, churches and monasteries, which much be founded in the form of a large Christian family. Each Christian must strive towards these new mutual relationships by encompassing himself with these new, spiritual, bonds. True, many will say: what can we, weak, sinful people, do? Of course, individual Christians cannot attain this - it is a concern of the whole Church. With this, I will proceed to the final part.

V. How the Church Creates Spiritual Ties

      The Church is the Body of Christ, and we are its members. The Apostle Paul teaches that each member must fulfil his duty for the good of all. This means that if we belong to the Church and follow Her statutes, we will continually strengthen our spiritual ties in Christ. This will come about through the Church's prayers, Mysteries, services and mutual fellowship.

      Chief meaning in the Church is given to the Mysteries, and for this reason we will examine their effects.

      The Mystery of Baptism Through this Mystery of renewal, the Church unites the infant to a new life in Christ. It would seem that this Mystery has meaning only for the one being baptized, but if we consider the godparents, we will perceive a greater meaning in this sacrament. The godfather and godmother are drawn by the Church to participate in the Christian upbringing of the child, and thereby enter into new ties with the family of the baptized. After this, the Church considers them to be spiritual relatives of the family of the baptized and therefore forbids inter-marriage between them. Thus, with each new baptism, the foundation of the Church, the family, is strengthened. Even if not all godparents fully acknowledge their obligations, yet around every baptismal font new spiritual ties spring up between members of the Church.

      The Mystery of Communion From the very earliest times of Christianity, this Mystery was looked upon as a means of maintaining spiritual ties between members of the Church. The Savior said: "He who eats My flesh and drinks My Blood abides in Me and I in him" (Jn. 6:56). The essence of this mystical unity is difficult to grasp, but leaves no doubt that all the faithful, through Holy Communion, enter into spiritual brotherhood through Jesus Christ. And when we say "brother-in-Christ" or write in a letter "with love in Christ," then we witness thereby to our spiritual kinship with other members of the Church. Such a spiritual tie between us goes far beyond all other human relationships, for it has an eternal, unsurpassable meaning. Therefore, the greater the number of the faithful that receive Holy Communion in a parish, and the more often they approach the Holy Chalice, the more the bonds of Christian love between them will be strengthened thereby.

      The Mystery of Marriage By this Mystery the Church creates a family, a new cell of the faithful. In esence, a sort of spiritual miracle is performed in this Mystery: from two previously separate persons, the Church fashions the new ties of relationship between husband and wife. And in the Rite of Matrimony the priest prays for them: "O Eternal God, Who hast brought into unity them that were sundered, and hast ordained for them an indissoluble union of love, do Thou Thyself bless these, Thy servants, guiding them unto every good work."

      Although this "union of love" includes the physical unity, its chief sense is the spiritual union, after the model of Christ and His Church. And that there should always be of necessity mutual spiritual understanding between the groom and the bride in a Christian marriage, we have a direct indication in the following passage in the epistles of the Apostle Paul: "Have we not power to eat and drink? Hae we not power to lead about a sister, wife, as well as other apostles and brethren of the Lord and Cephas?" (I Cor. 9:5).

      This shows us that true Christian marriage can take place only between the faithful. In choosing for himself a partner for life, the groom must, above all, find for himself a "sister-in-Christ," and the bride a "brother-in-Christ," after which the Church unites them in the bonds of marriage for their whole life. This is the reason why the Church considers marriages with persons of different confessions undesirable, and still more so, with unbelievers. Such marriages, as it were, remain outside the general life of the Church and cannot be stable. Only a common faith can be a true foundation for marriage; and everything else will follow.

      The Mystery of Confession In this Mystery new spiritual ties also appear between penitent and confessor. Here the confessor, appointed by the Church, becomes a spiritual father and takes upon himself care of his spiritual children. Thus, it is so important to have as one's spiritual father not just any priest, but a regular guide, as is done in monasteries. It is posible for laypeople to have such a regular confessor in the form of an elder to whom one commits oneself for his whole life. Thus, the Mystery of confession maintains the deep spiritual relationships between the clergy and the laity. But the spiritual father has a particularly great meaning for monastics, when they completely renounce the world and commit themselves to a spiritual father, who takes the place of their father and mother.

      Such is the meaning of the Holy Mysteries in the creation of spiritual ties within the Church, on the foundation of Christian love. They sustain the faith of members of the Church and strengthen their Christian life, both family and personal. In such conditions there cannot be the type of loneliness and neglect among Christians which is presently observed among people lacking any sort of spiritual bonds. Such unbelieving people marry and beget children, but all this has a casual and temporary character. Their marriages fall apart, their children are neglected and perish, both physically and spiritually. Even their family relationships are based not so much on love as on greedy calculation, in order to receive help, protection or an inheritance, and so as not to be left alone in their old age. And how many suicides are there today, that airse chiefly because of unbelief and the loneliness bound up with it?

      In conclusion I would like to point out certain customs, which have arisen among Orthodox people, and which express a desire to strengthen new spiritual relationships by way of the Church. We see this in the Church's service of adoption and in the ancient custom of "becoming brothers". Church adoption is not concerned merely with receiving orphans into a family as it is now formulated by secular law. It brings to relationship those people which have no blood relationship, who wish to adopt the relationship of father and son. For this there is in our Book of Needs the Rite of Adoption, which is performed according to the following order: the two people stand with lighted candles before the open royal doors, in which the priest stands in his vestments. After the introductory prayers, the priest reads a special prayer - from which the following is taken: "O King, Lover of Mankind, look down from Thy holy dwelling upon these, Thy servants, and their nature, separated fromone another by flesh, and do Thou Thyself make them father and son, unite them by Thy Holy Spirit, and confirm them in Thy love ..." and so forth. Upon conclusion of the prayers, the younger falls to his knees before the elder, and the father says to him: "Today thou art my son; this day have I begotten thee." Then they kiss each other, and the dismissal and blessing of the priest follow.

      In this rite the difference between sonship by the flesh and sonship by the Spirit is revealed; the latter is considered, as it were, the higher relationship, for it is given by the Church with the invocation of the Holy Spirit.

      "Becoming brothers" is in the same manner a strengthening of brotherly (or sisterly) relationships between unrelated persons. Although this custom arose among the Slavs even before their Christianization, it has been preserved even thereafter. It grew around friendships between people of the same sex to transform completely their friendship into brotherly and sisterly relationships. I am not aware of any sort of ecclesiastical order existing for this, but it is always accompanied by the exchange of crosses, after which the two become "brothers by the cross" or "sisters by the cross". Doubtless, we see here an attempt by friends to strengthen new relationships of a purely spiritual sort.

From Orthodox Life, Vol. 28, No. 3 (May-June 1978), pages 20-31. Translated by the Reverend Andrei Alexiev, pastor of St. Vladimir's Church, Houston, Texas, from: Orthodox Russia, 1976, No. 13 (1/14 July), pp. 8-13. This article was originally a lecture delivered by Fr. Sergei Shukin at Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary.


"I came not to send peace, but a sword." In the parallel passage of Luke's Gospel, the word "division" is in place of "sword". [Return to text.]

"who rejected their homes and "went to the people," or to the revolutionary underground." Such was the infamous Prince Peter Kropotkin. [Return to text.]

Hosted by uCoz