Reflection – Family

When I was studying theology at Fordham in 1964, a professor told us an anecdote from the diary of a 
19th Century missionary to the Far North.  The professor said that it is a principle of anthropology that the more remote a society is from the centres of civilization, the farther back in time it can lead us.  When the missionary priest explained to the people the connection between sex and babies they laughed.  How ridiculous, they said.  Look at how often there is sex and how seldom there are babies.  Everyone knows that the spirits of the ancestors enter the mouth of the mothers and begin to grow within them.

This conversation has been repeated over and over again in the course of our Western history, sometimes symbolically, sometimes straight up.  The first time was ‘In the Beginning’ between Eve and Adam.  The knowledge passed on by Eve and the missionary was followed by what seems an obvious conclusion, namely that a man plants a ‘seed’ (semen in Greek) into the woman who then gives birth to HIS child.  Many consequences followed which are written in our history.  He needed to know that the child this mother gave birth to was actually HIS child.  As the child was his, it was no longer the village but the father who was responsible.  ‘By the sweat if his brow’ he provided for his family.  The father needed to own things to do so.  He even needed to own land for shelter.  He needed to give what he owned to his son who carried his seed.  Inheritance began, so possessions could be passed on.  It was believed that God gave to men alone the Seed of reproduction and therefore power and wealth became signs of God’s blessing to fathers.  This was understood as the ‘Natural Law’ and defined the shape of families, while inheritance from father to son defined society.

I hear echoes of the earlier version of the natural order in Luke’s story of the Annunciation.  It was a way of expressing the divinity of the Christ.  This earlier version of family life must have been known at that time.  Luke also tells us in today’s gospel that Jesus did not accept the name ‘Father’ for anyone except God.  We know that later on in his life the ‘powers that be’ considered Christ’s teaching to be quite threatening to their power.

As Saint John explains in his letter to us, “we are God’s children now” and this is His commandment, “we should love one another, just as He has commanded us.”  Human power and ownership do not come from God.  Only one commandment, to love, comes from God.  All other rules and regulations are only human.

The Holy Family was a family grounded in love, not inheritance.  Modern science has shown us how very complex heredity really is.   Both the ancient theories of life were partly true.  But what is now and always was true, is that love is what creates Family.

Agnes Beirne


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