My wife Eileen and I had a running joke. Whenever we were deciding on a movie to rent, she would place a request for a film about “relationships.” On the other hand, once in a while, I liked to watch a good old-fashioned action-and-adventure film. So when I came home with Gunfight at the OK Corral or Dirty Harry and she asked, “What did you get?”, I’d just say, “It’s a film about relationships.”
Several years ago, in a magazine editorial entitled “Growth Snobs,” the author wrote: “Children are naturally selfish. We learn to feel compassion and caring very slowly, as we gradually come to appreciate other people. Many children have not learned that lesson, and neither, it seems, have many of the preachers of personal growth. ‘Two of my friends were in a car accident this weekend,’ one participant in a popular [personal] growth workshop told us recently, ‘Before I would have felt badly about it—now I don’t have to.’”
This editorial reflects a very common and popular model of selfhood; that is to say, it reflects an image of the autonomous self, someone who inhabits a world of other selves but who bears no direct or real responsibility for the well-being of another. This model of selfhood has been referred to as “the American virus of excessive individualism.”
In his book Habits of the Heart, the renowned sociologist Robert N. Bellah describes his extensive study of how Americans view themselves in relationship to the community at large. What he found was that while at times we can be a very generous people, there is confusion and ambivalence among us when it comes to having any genuine and consistent sense of social justice, an innate sense of responsibility for the well-being of others. Apparently, we like to accommodate and get along with others so long as it does not seriously inconvenience us. But we do not generally view ourselves as our brother’s or our sister’s keeper.
The book of Genesis lays down the foundation of how human beings are constituted and intended to be, by God. According to Scripture, we are not created to be autonomous but rather to be in relationship. Recall the words of Genesis: Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make him a helper to be his partner.” The helper given to him by God would be so kindred to him that he could describe the partner “as bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” There was, in effect, a profound bond of unity and commonality between the two. And it was precisely in and through this bond of unity and commonality that the man’s own spell of isolation and loneliness was broken. He could name all the other creatures God had made, but in none other could he find a kindred spirit.
In his classic work I and Thou, Martin Buber makes a wonderfully insightful statement. He says, “Egos appear by setting themselves apart from other egos; persons appear by entering into relations with other persons.” We are called by God, of course, to become persons, not egos. And the creation story of Adam and Eve is the bible’s way of telling us how to do that. It tells us that our very existence as persons is discovered and constituted in and through our relationships with each other.
Becoming persons and not just isolated egos is the fundamental truth of God’s revelation, a truth that becomes more and more important the more we tend to move as a nation into worlds of privacy, self-enclosure, and unrelatedness. We are flesh of each other’s flesh and bones of each other’s bones. If we fail to recognize and act upon this truth of Genesis, we risk jeopardizing our very existence as human beings. If we are so closely related to each other in our common humanity that we can say of one another, this, at last, is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, then we can also say that because of who Jesus is and what he has done for us, we, even now, in our humanity, are related to God.
That sounds strange. But it is true. It is a revelation of Jesus. Remember the scene in the Gospel where Jesus is inside a house, instructing people in the ways of the Gospel and the ways of God. Some of his disciples come up to him and say, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” And Jesus replies, “Who are my mother and brothers? Whoever hears the Word of God and keeps it, is mother and brother and sister to me.”
We all know how Jesus addressed God. He called him Abba—“father,” “papa.” And he instructed us to call him the same: “Our Father (our “Abba,” our “Papa”) who art in heaven.” It would be scandalous, almost ridiculous to even think of God in these terms if it were not for the fact that this is precisely what Jesus told us to do. We are related to God and God is related to us.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus was our pioneer, the one who went before us, on our behalf, in our humanity, living our life and even suffering our death. And the result of all this is that the one who sanctifies (namely, Jesus) and those who are sanctified (namely, us) all have one Father. For this reason, Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters. And the letter goes on to say that since the children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shares the same things. He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God.
When the celebrant prepares the chalice for the Eucharist, he pours a few drops of water into the wine, and as he does, he prays, “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” In a few brief words, this prayer describes the meaning and the mystery of the Incarnation, the story of Christmas.
There is something wonderful and astounding about ourselves that Jesus has accomplished. He has given our humanity, our flesh and blood, the dignity and sacredness of being daughters and sons of God, of being sisters and brothers of Jesus, of sharing in the divine life of God; in other words, of being related. Christian theologians and mystics have pondered this mystery for centuries and have written about it in many diverse ways in an effort to make its meaning more comprehensible, although it is ultimately incomprehensible.
I recently came across a beautiful homily written by Peter Chrysologus, a bishop of the early church. In the homily, he describes God’s appeal to humankind and the kind of relationship that now exists between ourselves and God:
In me, I want you to see your own body, your members, your heart, your bones, your blood. You may fear what is divine, but why not love what is human? You may run away from me as the Lord, but why not run to me as your father? Perhaps you are filled with shame for causing my bitter passion. Do not be afraid. This cross inflicts a mortal injury, not on me but on death. These nails no longer pain me but only deepen your love for me. I do not cry out because of these wounds, but through them draw you into my heart. My body was stretched on the cross as a symbol not of how much I suffered but of my all-embracing love. I count it no loss to shed my blood. It is the price I paid for your ransom. Come then, return to me and learn to know me as your father who repays good for evil, love for injury, and boundless charity for piercing wounds.
This is the Gospel, the incredible Good News of our faith. We are so close to God—so intimately related to him, and he to us—that we can legitimately imagine him gathering us up with affection, the men and women he has created, and embracing us in union with his risen son as he exclaims, This at last is flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone.
Ed Burns is a licensed marital and family therapist living in Litchfield, Connecticut, where he maintains a private practice treating individuals, couples, and families.