Saturday, July 07, 2007

Family Affair

I am sitting in a Long Island church watching my niece Lauren’s first communion and no one is going to convince me that this is not a dress rehearsal for a wedding.

The girls wear virginal white. They give off that nervous patina of brides. They wear smiles that shout, “Look at me!” as they hold their hands in perfect a prayer position so as to show off their expensive manicures. Hairstyles of various curls and flips abound; all the girls’ heads are covered by the delicacy of lacey veils, the acquisition of which has been the source of so much melodrama with their Mothers.

The boys, on the other hand, wear the traditionally austere navy blue suits and the just as austere and blue looks on their faces. They’ve used enough hair gel to keep their spiky little hair studs in place in an F5 tornado! Some wear bows around their arms and they all – ALL – appear like they would much rather be peeling their skin off slowly with a dull butter knife.

Long Island is the land of Super Sweet Sixteen reality TV. I know it is possible to live simply and raise simple kids on Long Island. I know that people do. I just could not explain to you how one goes about doing that. In the context of Super Sweet Sixteen parties that have parents offering gold plated cell phones to the party guests as favors, it should come as no surprise then that even things as sacred as a first communion do not go untainted.

I watch these kids walk down the aisle in pairs. One girl – a whole head taller than her male counter part – has her head turned, looks at her partner the whole time, her hands folded, and whispers orders to the boy about how fast to walk. “Not so fast!” “Now. Faster. Hold it. Slow down!” the whole way down the aisle. It’s clear to me who is going to wear the pants in that family.

My niece, Lauren, is beautiful. She has this absolutely angelic complexion with light icy blue eyes and it just takes my breath away to see her looking so – well, grownup is the word I will use. And of course she is growing up. Her long blonde hair is set in ribbon-like curls and she wears a choker that has imitation pearl drops hanging from it.

I don’t recall the fashion part of this sacrament when I received, but then again, I’m a guy, so I wouldn’t. I just remember being told to wear a suit and to walk. Being Italian, First Holy Communion is a threshold experience in the minds of the families in attendance. This will be Lauren’s first time receiving the Body of Christ. Ostensibly, she will never be the same after today. I lean over to my mother and my aunt who are sitting in the front pew with me and I whisper: “This is such a godfather moment.”

In Italian families, all rites of passage are celebrated with the kind of flourish that leaves one’s mouth hanging as wide as some of those Long Island flounder I used to catch in my youth in the salty waters off the Island’s shores. Outsiders – that is non-Italians – seem to have a hard time getting their heads around the verve with which things like a first communion are celebrated.

As we sit in the pews of Holy Family Church, though, I begin to think about the nature of family in all this. First communion is nothing if not about the sanctity of the family especially as it pertains to the raising of children. The event is a landmark for these kids and their parents and it is presented with enough pomp to make it feel important.

The common understanding in Catholicism is that the Holy Family and the ordinary family mirror one another: Father is the God-head while Mother is the Marian archetype. The idea of being a good Catholic Christian is most certainly, though not exclusively, bound up with being a good member of the family. However, in the context of the status quo, and Jesus’ mission on earth, I have some misgivings about this concept. It’s a perspective that might not make that cannoli sit so easy in your stomach.

If we look at how Jesus responds to families in the gospel, it seems at odds with this sort of Church blessed notion that families are the basis for living a good and moral life. In fact the first and only childhood story we have of Jesus is the one in which he escapes from his mother and father to preach at the temple. He chastises Mary and Joseph saying in effect, “Don’t you know I need to be doing my father’s work?”

Hmmm. I’m pretty sure a response like this would have earned me a stiff crack across my butt. Jesus gets off scot-free.

Later in his life, Jesus warns his disciples that they must leave their families and He would make them fishers of men. He admonishes Mary telling her he has only one Father and, oh by the way, it isn’t Joseph. God, Jesus tells us, is “Our Father” too, thus creating a new family dynamic: the brother and sisterhood of all humankind.

Doesn’t He also side with Mary against Martha at Lazurus’ house? Martha complains that Mary is not doing her fair share of the cooking, setting the table, doing the dishes, performing her familial roles like she’s supposed to. Rather, Mary is at the feet of Jesus
listening to His every word, slacker that she is.

Jesus never suggests that having a good family is the way to achieve the Kingdom of God. In fact, He seems to be indicating that the opposite is true. But weren’t we taught that this is what defines the moral person, the good person, the one surely on the righteous path to heaven?

If we really examine the nature of the status quo we quickly realize how it is the rigor mortis of unjust social structures that provides separate and unequal living standards throughout this world. If we see Jesus’ ministry as something counter cultural, then it is easy to view His perspective as radical, meaning “root”. Jesus’ radicalism - getting to the root causes of things - sees the status quo as insufficient, tepid, not going far enough to bring the Kingdom of Heaven at hand, which as he kept saying throughout the Gospel, was why he was there in the first place, if anyone had bothered to listen to Him.

It would be fair to say that each of us has an affinity to his own basic tribe. From an evolutionary point of view, this sort of tribal behavior gave rise to social living. It is the way animals live and from the standpoint of preserving a species, it works. Today, this sort of tribal belonging gives us our sense of self-esteem, our confidence and turns us ultimately into social creatures. All in all, this is a good and positive thing. But if we never move beyond this then the social dynamic becomes and always remains “us” versus “them”. Believing in “the family of man” then is more window-dressing, more of an intellectual endeavor than a spiritual transformation.

For example, when we consider where we learn the notion of redemptive violence, this idea that violence can correct human behavior, don’t we learn this from our family? Don’t we teach our children not to hit others by the action of rapping the child’s wrist? Is it me, or does it seem that most of our dysfunctions as individuals stem from the unhealthy relationships that bubble up from our immediate, biological families? It seems to me that Jesus was suggesting that “status quo” behavior is what the nuclear family is best at imparting to others and that this would never do if we wanted real change, root change, radical change. This aspect of family - the tribal nature of it - needs to be replaced by something more universal, more encompassing.

I have a friend who often talks about the family you get and the family you choose. I believe this to be true. When we are born, we are born into the family we are given. But the fact is unless we turn our backs on conventional thinking, the kingdom of heaven will always be out there somewhere, or in the sky or someplace other than here and now. Unless we change how we view what a family is, then family life will be an obstacle to the sort of transformation that is required to bring heaven on earth. Until we open up our view of family to that of the family of all men and women, nothing will ever really change. We will continue to fight the same “wars to end all wars”, we will continue to feel aggrieved time and time again, we will continue to feel the injustice of poorly distributed wealth since we will always give in to our own tribal needs for the creature comforts of belonging, while all the time there is a larger sense of belonging that awaits us.

Unless and until I can see the homeless person as my real brother, the battered woman as my real sister, I am just promulgating more of the same relationships between me and everyone else: us and them. The behaviors will remain the same and the results of all my actions will remain the same.

This is not to suggest that we are all called to leave our families and to fight for justice as some might suggest. Instead, I believe that we are called to extend our notion of family to those who don’t think like us, look like us, pray like us, live like us, sound like us, or love like us. The gospel repudiation of family is not one that has us turning our backs on anyone, but rather opening our arms to everyone; to see family as something more than owning some turf, more than a wall to gather up “my own” and to keep out all of the “thems”.

So as I watch these beautiful children process on this beautiful warm and sunny Sunday morning, as I watch all of these wonderfully neurotic families climb over each other to get pictures of “their” son or “their” daughter, right here in Holy Family Church, I wonder if anyone would even understand what I am talking about. I wonder if the notion of family can ever really be transformed the way I believe Jesus was hoping it would. I wonder if we can ever really believe in a family of mankind, that our destinies truly are conjoined. Common ground is always a conspicuous thing, sitting right there under our very noses, if we choose to look.

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