What makes a Family?
Each of us has an experience of family. Your family may look similar to my family or it may look quite different. Your family may have two parents or one parent. Your family may have a caregiver who is neither your father nor your mother. You may have siblings. You may have a large or a small extended family. You may be physically close to your family but distant in your relationships. You may be physically far from your family but close in your relationships. In short, family is something that is not so easy to define or describe.
Depending on the experience we had in our childhood, we may have found ourselves following in the footsteps of our parents as we fell in love and married and had children of our own. Perhaps we chose to remain single and enjoy the company of others in the family whose children we could watch grow and spoil them as only aunts and uncles can do. Perhaps we found ourselves raising children on our own because of the loss of a spouse through death or divorce or maybe we chose to adopt a child.
The image of family that I knew, as presented to us through our society and the media of television, books and magazines, gave a picture of the ideal family in their eyes. There were two parents, two or more children – preferably at least one child of each sex – and a family pet which usually was a dog. The reality is that I grew up as an only child and could not have pets such as dogs or cats due to severe allergies. Yet somehow I didn’t feel that my family was not a real family.
Today the images of family that we find in our media and in our society are much more diverse. This helps us to understand that families do not come in one form but in many. It may be quite surprising to realize that many of the images of family that we see portrayed and lived in our modern day were very much present in generations past but they were often suppressed or hidden because people were made to feel that only the ideal family was to be celebrated and recognized as a positive model for growing healthy people.
As we ponder what makes a family, we can think of Jesus’ own answer when told that his mother and brothers were waiting for him to come home. To paraphrase, Jesus said: “whoever does the will of God, these are my brothers and sisters.” Family in Jesus’ eyes meant something more than flesh and blood. To Jesus it was about our heart. It was about whether or not we found partners and helpers with whom we could share burdens, joys, responsibilities and encourage one another on this journey called life. For Jesus, family was defined as people who are willing to partner with each other, to help each other and to share life together.
But Jesus never forgot or abandoned his mother or his brothers. Yet he knew that family went beyond physical blood relationships. And so St. John the Divine could write with all confidence that we can consider ourselves to be not only children through blood but even more, children of God – adopted by God who truly wants us to be his children. Jesus looked at those whom he called to be disciples and who followed him and he called them friends and family. None of them was physically related to him as we may be related to our parents or siblings but each of them was loved as much – if not more – than any blood relation. Whatever our family may look like, the hope of God is that we find a positive and supportive family association.
So how do we create and maintain positive and supportive families. Above all, we need to see family as a community that can reflect the love spoken of by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Cor. 13:4-8)
When we find ourselves in a relationship, a community where we are accepted for who we are and are supported, there is family. The intention of God for us and for all our families is that we live in mutual respect and acceptance of one another. Each one of us is to be mindful of the needs of one another and seek to be supportive to one another. We need to recognize the gifts of one another, acknowledging one another and enabling each other to grow to our potential.
Family is meant to be a relationship where we find and feel security. We are to secure one another physically but also mentally and spiritually.
So what makes a family? It is people; people of different ages and different life experiences; people who are short and tall; people who are young and old and in-between; people who are willing to truly love one another; respect one another, encourage one another and support one another in this journey of life.
Will we ever find ourselves in a perfect family? Not while we are still here but one day we will experience a perfect family. For now we can celebrate that God in Jesus shared with us a vision of family and a vision of family life.
May we seek to embrace that vision and so strengthen the family we are closest to and may we ever seek to become the family of God that God calls us to be in this place.