While lists of literature’s favorite women vary widely, they nearly always mention one beloved heroine: Josephine March of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. “Jo” and her three sisters, Meg, Beth, and Amy, have charmed hearts and minds for nearly 150 years through numerous adaptations, and PBS is preparing yet another rendition with a 2018 television series.
What is it about Little Women that keeps us returning to it? While the individual trajectories of the sisters, and especially Jo’s, are enthralling in their own right, something more profound and weighty anchors the story and comforts its readers: the sisters’ shared childhood and distinct family identity.
Little Women opens on Christmas Eve, just hours before a day that will be marked by a scarcity of gifts and a quartet of daughters missing their father who is serving as a Union Army chaplain. The girls are dejected as the story begins, lamenting that a day they want to celebrate will be tainted by lack and loneliness. They attempt to bring about some brightness by planning small gifts for their beloved mother, Marmee, but remain sad and disappointed at the thought of Christmas.
But when a letter arrives from their father, the girls’ self-focused lament turns to confession and claims of aspiration. The reminder of their beloved father’s goodness and hopes for them causes Amy, the youngest and most theatrical daughter, to exclaim, “I am a selfish girl! But I’ll truly try to be better, so he mayn’t be disappointed in me by-and-by.” “We all will!,” respond Meg, Beth, and Jo, echoing her sentiments.Just as the March family cultivated a family identity that equipped their daughters to offer kindness to the world, so the Church exists to be a unified body poised to bless the world.
As the girls and Marmee prepare to sit down to a simple but lovely Christmas breakfast, Marmee tells them of an immigrant family who lives nearby, and whose abject poverty has left them freezing and hungry. She asks if her daughters are willing to give the family their breakfast despite the March’s own limited resources. Determined to remain true to their claims from the evening before, the girls quickly pack up their breakfast and deliver it to the destitute family, returning home to eat bread and drink milk:
And when they went away, leaving comfort behind, I think there were not in all the city four merrier people than the hungry little girls who gave away their breakfasts and contented themselves with bread and milk on Christmas morning.
While each of the sisters return to moments of selfishness and frustration throughout the book, the self-sacrificing and creative lifestyle that their parents modeled and invited them into shapes their lives into adulthood. Jo, scrappy and a bit of a renegade, crashes through life for a while, yet she ultimately finds her life’s calling in starting a school for students who cannot afford traditional education. The roots of her family identity and the sprouts of her own personality and imagination bud into something that ushers truth and beauty into the lives of others. Jo’s life trajectory embodies words her mother spoke into and lived before her and her sisters: “[W]hat [time] cannot diminish is the wonderful workings of your mind: Your humor, your kindness, and your moral courage.”
Marmee’s wisdom, Father’s deep love and hope, and their own unbreakable bond form the sisters in profound and irreversible ways. Because of their family’s distinct identity, they become women with eyes open to see the needs of others and minds equipped to meet those needs with creativity and love.
Just as the March family cultivated a family identity that equipped their daughters to offer kindness to the world, so the Church exists to be a unified body poised to bless the world. And just as Jo is able to find her place because of how her nuclear family taught her to offer kindness to others, the Church is presented with the opportunity to disciple each other as fellow members in the family of God while cultivating a counter-cultural Christian imagination that will manifest as a blessing to the world.
In our modern, individualistic culture, it’s natural to live lives that reflect one of Jo’s frustrated claims: “I don’t like favors, they oppress and make me feel like a slave. I’d rather do everything for myself, and be perfectly independent.” As a mother, I laugh at this scene. I imagine Marmee smiling at Jo’s narrow, immature thinking, just as I do when my young boys have childish “I do it myself!” outbursts. Regardless of their determination to live independently, I remain hopeful that my children will someday understand the inevitable truth that our lives are unavoidably entangled with the lives of others, regardless of individual personalities or cultural persuasions.
Yet even as I smile with the knowledge that my sons’ hope for ultimate autonomy is not nearly as romantic as they fancy, I feel a twinge in my own heart reminding me that I often want the exact same thing. Untethering from the needs and desires of others is, at times, embarrassingly tempting to me. The antidote to that temptation, however, is not merely a determination to keep caring for others because I should, but rather, a deeper understanding of the unique identity of the God’s family.
While few have the privilege of growing up in a biological family as strong as the fictional Marches, the Church family can offer its members a corporate identity centered in “doing justice and loving mercy” — a focus that not only benefits those directly blessed by that justice and mercy, but also forms a bond and common personality among the family members of the church.
Churches often compartmentalize or ignore the seeking of justice and loving of mercy, but this leaves the family of God without a full understanding of its intended identity. Just as commitment to the community around them strengthened the March family’s identity, commitment to blessing the world is meant to be an integral part of the family of faith, strengthening its members’ communal love for God and one another.
By cultivating a common life of love and generosity toward one another and the world around us, we disciple one another toward “the church’s creative imitation of God’s suffering love for the world,” as Kevin J. Vanhoozer writes in The Drama of Doctrine. He goes on to write that “[there is] no more powerful witness to the truth of the gospel,” for as “the church participates in the love of God, it makes evangelical gestures and acts out the body of Christ.”
Just as God called the Israelites to a specific way of life that they might be witnesses of God’s love and holiness (Genesis 12:1-3, Isaiah 60), He calls the Church now to be lights in the world (Matthew 5:13-16, Ephesians 5:7-14). If we refuse to pair them with self-sacrificing love and generosity, then our words and ideas for how the world should become will sound eerily reminiscent of clanging symbols. But when the Church embraces a witness of embodied action, we collectively reflect the character of God in both word and deed.
The March family is but a shadow of, as Tim Keller writes, our Truest and Best Elder Brother: the Christ who, motivated entirely by obedience to the Father and love for the world, emptied Himself of every last right that was His to possess. As we grow in relationship with one another through doing justice and loving mercy, while knowing that moments of selfishness and discord will arise, Jesus’ unfailing brotherly love is the unshakable anchor of our common identity.
The invitation into family is offered by One who will never rescind it, and who gives us all we need as we seek to live in community in such a way that others want to pull up a chair at the table, intrigued by this family so strangely content with bread and milk (or, perhaps, bread and wine) as they give their feast away.