A few days ago, I listened to a typically thought-provoking talk by Richard Bledsoe, in which he remarked on the place of friendship in the biblical narrative, especially within the gospel of John. It was in conversation with John H and Jeremy Abel concerning a post on the Faith and Theology blog that his thoughts came to mind again. In the Faith and Theology post, Ben Myers gives his thoughts on the Virgin of Vladimir icon:
The theological intuition underlying the whole tradition of Russian iconography is that there are, really and essentially, only two human faces: the face of Christ, and the face of his Mother. All other human persons have their own peculiar distinctiveness, their own particular faces, to the extent that they participate in these forms. For the Orthodox, it is not Adam and Eve who are the prototypes of humanity, but the New Adam and the New Eve – so that the fundamental human relationship is not that of man and woman (Karl Barth) or husband and wife (John Paul II), but of mother and child. The single form of Virgin and Child is the prototype of every human form: “The divine image in humankind is disclosed and realised … as the image of two: of Christ and of his Mother” (Sergius Bulgakov).
I initially took issue with the notion that there is a single ‘fundamental human relationship’. Different relationships come to the fore at different stages of the biblical narrative. The first stage is often the relationship between the father and the son, followed by the relationship between siblings, with the relationship between wives and husbands finishing the cycle. These cycles map onto gradually increasing spheres of influence. For instance, in Genesis we begin with the negative cycle of the relationship between God and Adam in the Garden, move to the relationship between Cain and Abel in the land, and then to the relationship between the sons of God and the daughters of men (or perhaps Lamech and his wives) in the larger world. The later part of Genesis involves the outworking of a positive cycle, as Abraham obeys God (Father-son), Esau and Jacob reunite and make peace (siblings), and Joseph’s marriage to an Egyptian represents the bringing of God’s grace to the wider world (husband-wife).
Of course, there is much missing from this cycle, not least the elevated status that the mother-son role has in the biblical narrative. The very protoevangelion places the mother-son relationship at the centre of redemptive history. (Quite literally) at the crucial moment the mother and her child face the threat of the serpent together, and all other parties fade into the background. When history breaks down, it is out of God’s working with the woman and the bringing forth of the seed that new life emerges. It is through the faith and determination of Ruth that the Davidic line is brought back from the dead. When Israel reaches its nadir, it is out of the tears of Hannah and God’s opening of her womb that the prophet who establishes the kingdom is born. It is in the womb of the virgin that God’s Son is conceived. The great struggle of the cross is a place where Christ is left alone by almost all but his mother and the other women: the birth pangs of the new Man and new creation are the pangs of women. One can definitely argue that this human relationship has a worthy claim to be the most fundamental.
Important as this relationship is, however, other proposed fundamental human relationships could make many of their own claims to match these. The husband-wife relationship case could argue that the whole biblical narrative works towards the eschatological point of the great Marriage Supper and coming together of bride and bridegroom. One could also observe the degree of ambivalence that Christ seems to have had towards his relationship with Mary ‘according to the flesh’ (Matthew 12:47-50; Luke 11:27-28; John 2: 3-4). If the relationship between child and mother is the fundamental one, then its character must be defined with some precision.
It is at this point that friendship is worth bringing into the frame. Throughout the Old Testament, blood and kinship are central to the picture. It is only at a few odd points in the narrative that friendship comes into the foreground, most notably in the story of David. However, in the New Testament and especially in the gospels, friendship is suddenly front and centre. Human father-son relationships disappear pretty early on, as Zecharias vanishes from the narrative, Joseph is put in a secondary place (Luke 2:48-49) and also disappears, and the disciples leaves their father to follow Jesus. Husband and wife relationships are also hardly visible: we are taken aback when we realize that Peter has a mother-in-law, as his wife is never once mentioned. Sibling relationships definitely have far more of a presence (James and John, Peter and Andrew, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus), but, once again, they are not the central ones. The central relationship is that of friendship, a relational bond that can be stronger than that of brotherhood, the love of which can be more wonderful than the love of a man for a woman. Sexual difference, generational difference, and blood relationship are no longer prominent factors determining the character of interpersonal bonds.
People have wondered how Jesus of Nazareth, who never married or fathered children, could embody perfect humanity. Jesus may not have been a husband or a father, but he exemplified a sort of relationship that speaks beyond all of these roles and can transform them: Jesus was the Friend. While this fact is often presented in the trivializing fashion of Jesus as the ‘life and soul of the party’, this falls so far short of the truth. Jesus had an unparalleled capacity to give himself to other people in a manner that brought freedom, health, life, comfort, forgiveness, and joy. People wanted to be with Jesus. No human being has been a friend like Christ. As Bledsoe observes, perhaps the best place to see Jesus the friend is in the gospel of John. If John reads so differently from the other gospels, surely it is because it was written by one who was Christ’s best friend – the disciple he loved – one who could tell the story from the ‘inside’.
Jesus’ friendships broke boundaries between the sexes, and between social insiders and outsiders. In the realm of true friendship we are all equals and contemporaries. Generational differences no longer matter and the differences between the sexes need not be a divide. Jesus had close friendships with both men and women, including forms of friendship that can be very rarely practiced in certain contexts today, such as profoundly homoaffective but non-sexual friendships and unsexualized friendships with the other sex.
The Church is a place where Christ’s practice of friendship is to be lived out. The Church is a place of friendship, of bonds that can traverse all divides of social status, gender, nationality, blood, and generation. In Church fictive kinship and friendship eclipse and transform all natural bonds, making friendship central to their existence. Within the Church, friendship infuses all other bonds. The Christian faith has had no small influence in encouraging the idea of companionate marriage, making friendship a core ideal for marriage partners. Whatever else it ought to be, marriage should be a place of profound friendship between the sexes. Parents should also seek deep and lasting friendships with their children.
Generational divides will not persist into the eschaton. In the resurrection, there will be no marriage or giving of marriage. Yet as those temporary and passing bonds of flesh are translated into the realm of Christian friendship, they will persist in that rich mutuality for all eternity. As these bonds of flesh are transformed in the life of the Church, the way that we perceive them will change. Friendship becomes the lens through which we see all else. In friendship we are all equals and contemporaries. Parents learn to raise their children as those with whom they will enjoy eternal friendship on equal terms. Wives and husbands learn to see their marriage as but a short chapter in and expression of a friendship that will survive the fleshly parting of death. In the process earthly divisions, distinctions, and differences are surpassed in a lasting equality of eternal mutuality.
John H suggested that perhaps this should provide us with a new reading of the Virgin of Vladimir icon: what it portrays is not merely or primarily the human maternal relationship between Jesus and his mother, but the raising of that bond into the eternal bond of friendship that exists between them. The icon is a representation of an intimate connection between two persons that transcends all earthly bonds. Mother and child are completely given over to each other, yet in a manner in which the wonder of Mary’s maternity is revealed as the manifestation of a much greater bond between the two, whose depths even it cannot fathom, and in the eternal aspect of whose unwavering mutuality, even it must retreat from view.
The various vocations we have as individuals are nothing but innumerable different species of friendship, conjugations of that more fundamental relationship. Perhaps this is especially important when it comes to such subjects as ‘single’ people in the Church. ‘Single’ people are consistently defined in terms of what they lack, or fail to participate in (single, abstinent, etc.), but celibacy is an especial form of the ministry of friendship. The celibate person is freed to practice a form of friendship in which he gives of himself freely to many others, without in any way binding them to himself. Forgoing the promise of ‘romantic bliss’, sexual union, and offspring, celibacy is akin to a heresy in terms of the values of most human societies, yet by this means bears powerful testimony to the bonds that outlast all others. Of course, marriage and celibacy are unique and special forms of the flowering of friendship, so we need not play them off against each other.
In the contemporary Church, I wonder whether our incessant focus upon the categories of marriage, singleness, and sexuality is bound up with a myopic failure to see the deeper category of friendship, which both relativizes and transforms them. In the midst of the innumerable theological works that are written on the subject of sexuality, one could be forgiven for forgetting that the Bible really has hardly anything to say about what we call sexuality and that, when it does, it is accorded only a marginally important significance. In a like manner, the centrality of family and marriage in the contemporary evangelical church and awkward place of singles seems somewhat strange when perceived against the background of a New Testament in which families are most noticeable by their absence and where familial, marital, and blood bonds are consistently transcended. A thoroughgoing theology of friendship has the potential to puncture numerous myths and radically to reorient our understanding and vision. A Church that spoke far more about friendship than sexuality, for instance, would have a far more challenging message to present to a sex-obsessed age. A Church that unapologetically proclaimed that a celibate person embodied perfect humanity, and carefully articulated the consequences of this belief, would strike at the heart of some of the greatest idols of our age. The fact that this is seldom done is perhaps evidence of the fact that we are also enthralled by them.