Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family, making it a good time to discuss exactly why God created the institution of the family and what is intended in family life.
We can go first to the Catechism and dive right into what the Church teaches about the purpose of the family.
The Christian family is a communion of persons, a sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. In the procreation and education of children it reflects the Father’s work of creation. It is called to partake of the prayer and sacrifice of Christ. Daily prayer and the reading of the Word of God strengthen it in charity. The Christian family has an evangelizing and missionary task. (CCC #2205)
Now let’s break this paragraph down a bit. The first point our Mother Church is making is that the human family is a reflection of, and participation in, the Trinitarian family in Heaven. We know that the Trinity is a union of three distinct persons in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We also know that these three distinct persons share a perfect love, which is perpetually generating among them. When we get to heaven, we will be full participants in this love and the Trinitarian family. God created the institution of the family here on earth so that we could experience a glimpse of the perfect family that waits for us in heaven. In other words, though certainly not perfect, our families reflect the love and bond of the persons of the Trinity.
The paragraph continues by explaining how our families participate in the Trinitarian family. God the Father is the sole Creator. He fashioned everything out of nothing and is thus, the very definition of creative. He made us pro-creative, meaning everything we produce is in cooperation with God, including our children, and hence, a reflection of the creative nature of the Father. Our families reflect Jesus through our acts of charity for one another, which should be sacrificial, just as Jesus loved us to the point of torture and death. We learn within the structure of the family how to be of service to one another and how to practice virtue when encountering others. It is often said that “charity begins at home.” If we are not practicing it within our own families, our charity toward anyone else loses some of its meaning. Therefore, in our family, we are called to emulate Jesus and His treatment of others. Lastly, our families participate in the Trinitarian family by generating love that pours out like the Holy Spirit. Christian love is not worldly love. Every Christian family practicing and experiencing Christian love exudes joy. That radiant joy is what we will fully experience in Heaven with our heavenly family.
If we are doing our best within our families of reflecting the role of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, it leads us to the final point of the paragraph that the Christian family has an “evangelizing and missionary task.” Each Christian family represents the Trinity to the world, which naturally leads to evangelization and missionary work. Christian families are called to be counter-cultural in our secular world. We are meant to stand out as examples of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the sacrificial love among them.
Before he became Pope John Paull II, Father Karol Wojtyła wrote a book called Love and Responsibility, published in 1960. If you are familiar with this great pope’s work, you are probably aware that it is very rich and dense. It takes a long time to read and work through. In this book he deals with the real meaning of marital love, relationships, and the threats in the world that exist to the family and this Christian love. If you are up for it, I encourage you to read it. However, if that sounds a little daunting to you, there is another great book by Edward Sri called, Men, Women and the Mystery of Love: Practical Insights from John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility. This book summarizes the previous work and makes the material practical and accessible. In Sri’s book, he quotes Father Wojtyła in describing how our Christian, marital love differs from the world’s view of love. Love is not merely an emotion, which he calls an “immature love.” Rather, it is a decision to be loving in the shadow of the sin of those we love. He says:
The strength of such a love emerges most clearly when the beloved person stumbles, when his or her weaknesses or even sins come into the open. One who truly loves does not then withdraw his love, but loves all the more, loves in full consciousness of the other’s shortcomings and faults, and without in the least approving of them. For the person as such never loses its essential value. The emotion which attaches itself to the value of the person remains loyal to the human being. (pg. 75, #135)
By this definition, when we love the members of our family, we are imitating the divine love of God, which is exactly what we are called to do.
Another good book on the subject of family life is called The First Society: The Sacrament of Matrimony and the Restoration of the Social Order, by Scott Hahn. As you can probably guess by the title, the premise of this book is that God instituted the family as the very first society with Adam, Eve and their children. When we honor God’s will for this “first society” by living accordingly, the rest of the greater society will follow since everything else is but an extension of the first society. Dr. Hahn says:
The sacramental society (the family) is the integrated society – the one in which the integrated truth of man’s nature is reflected in society. We are spirit and body: both should be served by the political community. We are political and spiritual: these two aspects of our nature cannot be compartmentalized. We have duties to God and to our fellow men: these duties are inextricably intertwined and belong to every member of the community. In other words, the sacramental society recognizes that Jesus Christ is Lord and that His Church is not an institution vying for earthly power, but the manifestation of the earthly reality of heaven. The reality of the sacraments cannot simply season the life of the community with a little divine intervention now and again. They are portals to the deeper supernatural reality of human existence, one which can transform us and our communities if, through a radical openness to the Holy Spirit, we permit it. (pg. 164)
A sacrament is an earthly means by which God communicates His grace to us. What Dr. Hahn is suggesting is that if we take our participation in the sacramental life seriously and allow God’s grace and the Holy Spirit to work in us and our families, we can change the world. We are to be resolute in living out the Sacrament of Marriage and love one another with a sacrificial love, as Jesus loves us. Additionally, we are called to participate in the full sacramental life of the Church with our spouses and children so that all of the members receive the fullest amount of grace necessary to go out and share it with the world.
Only two perfect families exist – the Holy Family and the Trinitarian Family. The rest of our families suffer from the effects of sin and therefore carry dysfunction and wounds to one degree or another. The question is not how to achieve perfection, but how to make forward progress within our families in imitation of these perfect families. This week, decide on one small change you can make within yourself to be a better example of Christian and self-sacrificing love. If every member of the family did this, imagine the change! But even if they don’t, your personal change will help make your family one small step closer to heaven.