It’s been quite a long haul, but I have finally finished reading all 974 pages of Dostoevsky’s epic novel The Karamazov Brothers. On one level it’s a family saga exploring the fiery relationships between three brothers and their father, but it’s also a gruesome murder mystery layered with passion, lust and jealousy, as well as being a theological exploration of faith, doubt and free will. With the exception of the youngest brother, Alyosha, who is a Christ-like personification of everything that is beautiful, all the major characters have heavy personality flaws which give rise to destructive family interactions.

“Families!”. It’s the weary sigh uttered by those trying to organise Christmas family gatherings. “How many nights can we get away with? One isn’t enough, but two is too many”. (It reminds me of the old joke about cocktails: one isn’t enough, two is too many, three isn’t enough). “Don’t mention politics / religion / exercise / Grandma / money / vegetarianism / A-levels / getting a job” (add your own items to the list). “Let’s think of things to keep everyone occupied” (in other words, to stop them arguing).

And yet, and yet. We love our families. We long to see them and miss them when we don’t. We really, really care about them. And when there is a rift, it hurts. It’s worth thinking about that: why are families so painful? The reasons, I think, are usually about love, longing, and care. If we didn’t love our family members, if we didn’t long for them, if we didn’t care, then family arguments and breakdowns would not be so painful. Love, longing and care: three words we might keep in mind this Sunday as we celebrate the baptism, confirmation and welcoming of several members of our church family.

Duncan McCall