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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Brother, or sister, or mother

In today's Gospel reading from Mark 3:31-35, we have the story of the Lord's earthly family trying to see him. When the Lord is told of this, he looks at his audience and points out ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my brother and sister and mother.’

While I was reading this to my family during bedtime prayers, one of my sons asks, quite interested: who were the brothers of Jesus? He's never heard of them (he's only 6). I explained that Aramaic limitation in vocabulary which makes it possible that these brothers or sisters were simply relatives. I also pointed out that some of these brothers are mentioned elsewhere as being sons of another Mary, a relative of our Lady. Obviously, this was more food for thought for my Evangelical wife than my kids, but I'd rather give a proper answer anyway.

It bears thinking that this oddity about the largely unknown brothers and sisters of Christ cause interest. Obviously my children are not atheists looking for a way to discredit Christian tradition. It does not matter: if it is interesting, the question ought to be asked and the answer should be given.

First I had to make clear that the point of St. Mark here was to marvel at God's gift of household, making all who do the will of the Father his children, making them brothers and sisters and mothers of the Lord. I've read of strange arguments using the Lord's brothers as a way to discredit the Church, as if it really mattered so much. Our Lady's perpetual virginity is not quite drilled in vehemently in the catechism, and its theological value is the pressing subject of volumes. There is a passage in Ezekiel about the gate that shall not be opened after the Lord had already gone through it. It has elicited comment from Saints Ambrose, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and certainly from many others. It is logical if you put yourself in the shoes of St. Joseph, who would probably feel some awe at the fact that our Lady was, in the virgin birth, a holy vessel who was overshadowed by the Spirit -- the Jews were clear about how holy the ark was as a result of that overshadowing in the OT.

And yet wrangling about these brothers of the Lord detract from the message. This particular message is about the marvelous inclusion of all as children of God. His hearers, who naturally held the Lord in high regards, were likely to have felt some envy for those who were closest to the Lord: his mother and his brothers and sisters -- even twice removed cousins, or even his childhood friends who grew up around him. The Lord, however, grants them a wonderful boon: we who did not know him as a child, who did not grow up around him, are also called to be his brothers and sisters -- simply from doing the will of God.

Now I don't mean here a case of works-righteousness. This is not about buying our way into God's family. But having been adopted into this family, even so purely by grace, here is a deeper truth. We are not family in name only. We are a family in fact. The will of God? St. Basil the Great, in today's Office of Readings, expounds on the marvelous and generous love of God. And our proper response (because it is a response, not an advanced payment) is simple: Love. That is what makes a family.

Now that I think about it, the Church actually does one better than those who would use the brothers of the Lord as a stick with which to beat Church tradition. They might claim, on the cursory reading of a few passages, that Christ had younger brothers, children of Mary. The Church claims more: we are all children of Mary. We were adopted into God's family through kinship with the firstborn, Jesus Christ. If we become his brothers and sisters in baptism, what does that make of Mary who is his mother?

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