Who is in your family?
The answer in my case is complicated. On the Hungarian side of my family, both my grandfather and father had two batches of children with different wives. Consequently, my youngest aunt is a year younger than my younger brother–not my youngest brother, though, who is twenty-three years younger than I am. I just had dinner with him last week when I was in New York; our relationship transcends our eccentric parentage. Our family is so complicated that at a family reunion we not only had name tags, but each tag had a color-coded dot indicating which branch of the family we were from. The oldest group of my grandfather’s children had dark blue dots, the youngest group had light blue dots. The oldest of my father’s children, which includes me, had dark green dots, and my younger brother and step-mother had light green dots. On a table there was a generational map with the key to all of the colors, and as the eighty gathered members of the family got to know each other we would walk over to the table and figure out how we were related. It was a fruitful family tree–the colored dots looked like fruit! Lots of us are interested in tracing our family tree, and seeing how it joins up with other trees. Researching our ancestry amounts to a national obsession these days, according to the current cover article in Harper’s magazine, by Maud Newton. The author’s conclusion is that in seeking to learn about our roots and branches, we are looking for a sense of belonging.
What was Sarah thinking?
Families in the Bible were complicated, too. When Abraham and Sarah were well past childbearing age, God promised that He would make Abraham’s descendants more numerous than the uncountable stars in the sky. He promised He would make a great nation from his children. With a lift of his shoulders, Abraham said, “Hunh! I have no children and my heir is my employee! Where are all of the offspring going to come from?” But God didn’t give a specific answer to the question. Some time passed, and Sarah came up with the idea that Abraham could have a child with her maidservant, which is what happened. Hagar bore Ishmael. But then, against all odds, Abraham and Sarah had Isaac. In the text, we hear that Sarah didn’t want Ishmael to inherit as the older son, so she forced Abraham to send Hagar into the desert with Ishmael to die. But they didn’t die. God rescued them and promised to make a great nation of Ishmael too. The tradition is that the descendants of Isaac became the people of Israel, and the descendants of Ishmael became the people of Islam. We hear elsewhere in Genesis that Ishmael grew up to be a “wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him” and–no surprise–he would be at odds with all his kin. Knowing the Bible is great preparation for reading literature. Now that you know the history and contentious nature of Ishmael, you are much more prepared to encounter one of the greatest first sentences in English, in one of the great American novels of the 19th century: ‘Call me Ishmael,’ which is the self-introduction of the narrator of Moby Dick. You know that his hand will be against everyone, and vice versa, and that there was strife in his family.
But back to the Bible.
Families in the Ancient Near East in the time of Jesus were complicated. When Jesus said “I come to set father against son, mother against daughter, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law,” it is likely He was talking more about the end result than his intention. Jesus was speaking against the rigid, unequal power structure of families of that time. Families were patriarchal, and marriages were contracts between the men. Women were essentially valuable property. Children were of little account as individuals. Jesus called for a different kind of family; one that valued each person as a precious child of God. Jesus gathered people around his table as a family of equals. You can imagine that if some of the members of a family embraced Jesus’ teaching and others did not–that would be the cause of plenty of the kind of conflict Jesus described. Jesus was inviting people into a new kind of family–His family. Baptism is not complicated. It is the sacrament of entering Jesus’ family. It is the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality. By water, oil and prayer, Baptism joins you with the whole Church. Who is in your family? Ancestors as uncountable as the stars! Your family tree includes Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Hagar and Ishmael and Jesus Christ. Your family album is the Bible. We have family reunions every week, on Sunday morning. It is the perfect ancestry for you who are looking for a sense of belonging. Know this: you belong here. Welcome home. Blessings, Anne+