Entries with tag genealogy .

Why Orthodox Christians Should Do Their Genealogy

Growing up, I barely knew my extended family. My immediate family was pretty small: just my parents, my sister and me. It wasn’t until after my parents divorced and remarried that my understanding of family dramatically shifted and expanded. As my family grew with these new marriages, so did my desire to know more about where I came from, to know whose sacrifices made me possible and whose features I saw in the mirror.

 

What began as a small hobby has become a huge part of my life today. My family tree – filled with extended cousins and distant ancestors – now has over 4,000 individuals. And as I’ve worked on six other family trees for friends, I have the same excitement each time I learn more about a new member of a family. What was their story? What happened to them?

 

For me, it seems natural that Orthodox Christians would want to learn more about their families. After all, historically Orthodox cultures tend to put a beautiful emphasis on family and extended family relationships.

 

What’s more, Orthodox teaching itself also suggests that it would be wise to study our personal genealogy.

 

1. The God of our fathers

 

In the Great Doxology, we sing “Blessed are You, O Lord, the God of our fathers, and praised and glorified is Your name forever, amen!” Each time I sing this prayer (from the Prayer of Azariah in the Book of Daniel) I’m reminded that our worship as Orthodox Christians is connected to something larger than me. Our God is the God of our fathers, not only of our ancestors but of the Church Fathers and Mothers, those whose sacrifices were the witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

 

Our identity as Orthodox Christians rests in our being a part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. We are rooted in the work and teachings of the Apostles (Apostolic) and when we are gathered in the local church we are united to the whole Body of Christ (Catholic). We surround ourselves by icons of the saints, reminding ourselves that those who came before us are intimately connected to us today through our union with Christ. And before writing or preaching to our world of today, we study the lives and writings of the saints to see what the Fathers had to say on the topic.

 

As Orthodox Christians, we move forward confidently only by knowing that we are firmly rooted on the tried and true foundation of our past. We know where we are going only because we know where we’ve been.

 

And since the Orthodox Church teaches the dignity of both soul and body, the story of who we are includes both our Orthodox story and our biological family’s story. If it is a natural aspect of our spiritual lives as Orthodox Christians to learn about our spiritual family, we ought to also learn about our biological family.

 

2. Attitude of gratitude

 

Father Alexander Schmemann taught that man was intended to be not just Homo sapiens, but ultimately Homo adorans: to offer worship and give praise to God. If individually we offer praise to God, then collectively we give that praise as the Church most clearly in the Liturgy – at the Eucharist. The most Orthodox thing we do is to give thanks (eucharistia) every Sunday. But how does this thanksgiving carry out into all aspects of our lives?

 

We thank God in the Liturgy for all that He has given us. We give thanks during Thanksgiving, and after Christmas, we make sure to thank those who have given us gifts. But have we forgotten our ancestors whose sacrifices and survival made our lives possible? Their gift to us was their survival, their gift to us is that they paved the way for the lives we live today. As the author of The Art of Manliness writes, gratitude has no expiration date. Just learning who these people were, discovering something about them, is our way of saying “thank you” for their gifts to us even if we never noticed them before.

 

Discovering our genealogy helps us to grateful for all of our gifts, for who we are today is because of the prayers, sacrifices, and talents of those who have come before us.

 

3. Relationships matter

 

As people, we all crave relationships. God is love, and created us in His image. In part, this means that we are created to offer love and to live in relationship with others. In the Church, we are given a community, a place where we can grow closer to God together. Even in a secular context, those who study addiction are finding that “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.” So there’s something powerful about the relationships we choose to have in our lives.

 

In the Orthodox Church, we have a lot of relationships that connect individuals and families in a web of connection. In the Orthodox wedding service, we pray, "Remember also, Lord our God, the parents who have brought them up, for the prayers of parents make firm the foundations of households." So even in what we tend to think of as a service about two people, we are reminded that a wedding is also about two families coming together.

 

The Church gives us Godparents, and connects us as koumbaroi to those who aren’t biologically related to us. Many in the Church actually see koumbaroi to be like biological family since there is a tradition that their children shouldn’t marry each other. In the past, the Church also offered the service of “brother-making” where a priest formally blessed the bond between two friends.

 

So if the Church sees relationships as being powerful, restorative aspects of our lives, what might we benefit by learning about the relationships that came before us? In learning about our ancestors, we will also learn about the relationships they held most dear. Just as we give importance to the web of relationships we have today, so did our ancestors.

 

We honor our relationship to our ancestors by learning about the relationships that they had, too.

 

4. Memory Eternal

 

In the Orthodox Church, we pray that the memories of our departed loved ones will be eternal. Having faith in the resurrection and hoping that God will keep our loved ones forever in His Kingdom, we pray for the dead knowing that they are alive in Christ.

 

Our prayer for those who have passed on is one way that we can work through our sadness and grief. Another way that we can work through this grief is to learn more about those who came before us. If we pray for our grandparents, do we pray for their grandparents too? As our tradition as Orthodox is to pray for persons by name, it would help to know our ancestors names to best pray for them. Genealogy helps us not only to discover their names, but to even learn what struggles they might have encountered in their lives.

 

Just as learning the lives of the saints helps us to identify with their lives, so too can learning the lives of our ancestors help us to better empathize with their struggles and to lift them up in prayer.

 

*****

 

The Orthodox Church teaches us to live lives of gratitude, firmly rooted in the faith of our fathers so that we can offer the world an authentic faith today. In the Church, we discover the importance of relationships and see that our relationships in this life cannot be destroyed by death. And just as we pray for our loved ones, genealogy offers Orthodox Christians the opportunity to encounter those who have departed from this life.

 

Do you know the names of your great-grandparents? How might learning the stories of your ancestors help you to better live in gratitude today?

 

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Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.

Photo Credit: depositphotos

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'Tis Almost the Season! - Sunday before Nativity

For the last thirty days or so we have been preparing for Christmas within the Orthodox Church. We have attempted to lighten our lives (and enlighten our trees) through various ascetical acts, seeking to open our hearts and prepare for the entrance of the King.

Christmas is a beautiful time; it often feels like the crown of the year, the culmination of a year of striving, a year of broken relationships, a year of trying to be different (and often failing). It’s nice to put all the differences, all the struggles, all the pain aside and reconnect with loved ones over a cup of hot cocoa as we seek to celebrate the birth of the Savior in a way that is fitting.

Too often, however, Christmas ends up a cliché: the most wonderful time of the year. It’s a time for which I have prepared by buying a tree, making a presents-budget, and decking the halls with boughs of holly.

I often forget that Christmas, the birth of God’s Son, is the most wonderful time of the ever.

Sure, I’ve spent the last 30 days preparing (in some sense), but how could I ever think this could even compare to the preparation that God put into His plan throughout the entire course of history, to the incomprehensible chain of cosmic history that culminated in the Lord becoming a human being.

A piece of this great chain is presented in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, and I’ll be the first to admit that it can feel a little daunting and…well, boring. We read the genealogy of the Son of God, and it includes tons of weird names and oh-so-many “begats.” If you’re anything like me, it is deeply difficult to stay focused or to care about it at times.

At best, I find that I can treat this reading like a theological lesson. See? I might say. This Gospel reading demonstrates that Christ is the fulfillment of prophecy, both truly God and the true human being, begotten of human ancestors since the dawn of time.

While tracing Christ’s human heritage can make a theological point regarding the hypostatic union and show us the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Christ, it may be a little bit harder to grasp some of the more baffling and beautiful elements of the genealogy, inasmuch as it tell us something about who our God is.

In his homily on this Gospel reading, which I must quote at length (I was tempted simply to copy the whole thing here), Fr. John Behr points out one of the most important realities to consider about God:

 Everything [in the genealogy] is arranged in a pattern that culminates in Christ…as the Lord of all creation and its history, everything does indeed rest in his [sic] hand. The whole movement of creation is providentially ordered in and towards him. But in this, God works in unexpected ways, ways known to him, and ways that more often than not subvert our usual expectations and standards…
            The genealogy also mentions, rather surprisingly, a number of women, not those who conceived by a clear act of divine intervention such as Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel, but those – Tamar and Ruth – whose union with their partners appeared scandalous to others, yet who enabled the line of the Messiah to continue.
            God works unexpectedly, through those who are thought of, in human terms, as stumbling blocks, triumphing over our best intentions and expectations…
            In many ways, the final woman mentioned in today’s Gospel also falls into this pattern. Mary is found with child before she was joined to Joseph…yet this is the result of the act of God, resulting, finally in the birth of his Son.[1]

Behr reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways. That God’s measure of what is good is different than ours, and that from a human, historical perspective, these things can only be understood in retrospect as within God’s providence.

The birth of the Son of God happened in a culturally scandalous, unexpected, unacceptable way. Moreover, for a virgin to be with child was not only unexpected, it was impossible! Besides being scandalized, what other reaction would one have?

Right, people might say, a “virgin” having a baby…and I’m Santa. Good one, Mary.

But that’s just the point of all of this: God has so carefully prepared the way for the birth of His Son into human history that He has even made room to include (and, indeed, given starring roles to) some extremely scandalous events and figures.

And if this is the case, then is it possible that God may make use of the scandalous and unexpected aspects of our personal stories as His Son is being born in our own hearts?

Of course, we can only really know in retrospect. But history and theology seem to point toward the possibility of a hopeful answer.

As I rethink the course of my life, even looking at things from the perspective of my 30-year-old self, I can see that what I may have considered to be shameful, what I may have considered to be something that should be hidden, is something God used to bring His Son more fully into my life.

Because there is no event that God cannot baptize and turn towards an unexpected good.  

This is not to say that I want to spend my life embracing scandalous ways of life. Rather, I should not allow my own faulty, scandalous humanity to overwhelm me, as it is clear that God can bring forth the birth of His Son through the unexpected, through a genealogy of sinners.

Perhaps in this final push of preparing for the entry of Christ into the world, we would do well to inspect our lives a little more thoughtfully, to ask ourselves if there is something scandalous, if there is something shameful that God may be trying to use as He seeks to bring forth the birth of His Son in our hearts.

Of course, it won’t be until the last day that we will know for sure what God has redeemed in our lives or how He has held our personal histories in the palm of His hand. But the genealogy of Christ gives us the hope. It is the promise that there is nothing God can’t use to redeem humanity.

It is the promise that there is nothing He can’t use to redeem us.

It is the promise that, no matter the multitude of our sins, we will never have reason to despair.

It is the promise that, even amidst our personal failings and scandals, we maintain the hope of seeing everything in our personal histories culminate in Christ as He is born in our hearts.

And as we glorify Him forever.

 

[1] John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2014), pp. 113-114.

Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

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