Catholicism perceives the presence of Divine Wisdom in the most ordinary places of human life. Pope Francis celebrates this fact in the opening lines of his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love): “The joy of love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church.”
Catholics contemplate the family as an agent of divine love in the world. In our homes — no matter how fallen those homes are — the love of Christ is made available to our local parish and the surrounding neighborhood.
Yet how are we to recognize the presence of this love? Theology — when it is at its best — is not just an exercise for intellectual Christians. Theology gives us images whereby we can perceive the ordinary world, including the family, through the eyes of the Creator.
The Family and the Image of God
In the Book of Genesis, the creation of man and woman is a culminating point of God’s creative love. Unique among all the creatures, man and woman are created in the image and likeness of God.
What does it mean to say that man and woman are created in the image and likeness of God?
Well, think about what God does in the act of creation. God creates the whole world through peaceful acts of speech. God does not create because God is lonely or bored, subject to divine listlessness. No! God creates because God is love.
To be created in the image and likeness of God is to be a peaceful co-creator with God, ordered toward self-giving love. The person is created in the image and likeness of God as male and female. To be male and female, as the Scriptures present, is integral to what it means to be a human being.
Marriage, in this sense, is a primordial sacrament in the church. That is, it is the sacred sign that precedes the incarnation of Jesus Christ. When men and women come together, pledging their lives to one another, they exercise their identity as those created in the image and likeness of God. In marriage, even before children are born, the union of husband and wife is the creation of a family ordered toward communion. Marriage points toward the love of God.
In the act of procreation, God’s wisdom once again reveals itself. The sexual union of man and woman has the potential to bring forth new life into the world. From an embodied act of self-giving love — the true meaning of sex — a child may be born.
This child is to be immersed, according to the wisdom of God in Genesis, in a space of love. Dad, mom and child(ren) exercise their identity as created in the image and likeness of God through sharing communion with one another. The young child, for example, learns about the goodness of the world not through abstract thought but through encountering the mother or father’s smile. The child delights in the love shared by mom and dad alike.
Of course, Genesis also presents the shadow side of family life. Our primordial parents’ sin. Adam blames God and Eve for his sin, fracturing the original communion that marked God’s creation of men and women. Violence enters the world as Adam and Eve’s firstborn, Cain, kills their second born, Abel.
The primordial plan for marriage and family may seem to those of us who abide in the shadow side as terribly optimistic. In our communities, relationships between men and women are not always marked by self-giving love. Domestic violence is all too real. Husbands and wives cheat on one another. Sex occurs outside of marriage. New life itself is often greeted with indifference by parents and society alike. Children are not always given a space of love where they can flourish.
Despite our experience, the church believes that we can benefit from contemplating the primordial gift of marriage and family life in Genesis. Yes, there is a shadow side. But as the Gospel of John proclaims, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (Jn 1:5) Original sin does not destroy the creation of men and women in the image and likeness of God. Even in the darkness, the light of love shines with brilliance. The task of the church is to accompany men, women and children in family life, especially when things are not perfect, inviting them to see the perfect communion to which they are called.
The Holy Family
The wisdom of divine love implicit in family life is further made evident in the enfleshment of the Word. Jesus Christ was born and entered a family.
Although this family knew the perfect communion of love, they were subject to the shadow side of the fallen world. Jesus was born in an extraordinary manner to a Virgin from Nazareth. Joseph, her betrothed spouse, planned on leaving her in a quiet way. Except through the divine intervention of dream, Joseph would have carried through with his plan.
Their beloved child, Jesus, was born in a feeding trough because there was no room in the inn. Days after his birth, King Herod sought to kill the newborn Savior of the world. Jesus, Mary and Joseph escaped into Egypt to avoid death. They returned years later, savoring the hidden life of Nazareth. Jesus, as sacred tradition tells us, was at the bedside of his father Joseph, comforting his mother as her spouse died.
Jesus, the very Word made flesh, lived an ordinary and rather poor existence for most of his life. He was part of a family, the miraculous child of Mary and Joseph. He worked and labored, ate and slept and learned to be a faithful son of Israel from his mother and father.
The beauty of the Holy Family is not in some romanticized understanding of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The true beauty is that God did not shun any dimension of the human condition. Joy and suffering, mundane work and festivals and the love of a child for his parents — God took all this up as an act of love.
Thus, our families are to become spaces where the Word can still become flesh here and now. Catholicism is not a religion that asks us to escape this world, to leave behind flesh and blood reality. Once again, no! Instead, it is through the materiality of family life in all its mundane messiness that Jesus came to redeem.
The Domestic Church
And yet, the redemption of the family extends beyond the relationship between mother, father and child to the whole world. The term “domestic church” is not a metaphor for the family. The family has a vocation to share in the communion of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The family is a concrete, tangible manifestation of the Church’s communion in every neighborhood of the world.
The nuptial blessing of the marriage liturgy forms our imagination to see the family as the domestic church. Through the self-giving love of husband and wife, expressed in sexual union, the Church is adorned with precious children. Whether the birth of children happens or not, the family is to form a space in the world marked entirely by adoration of God. Nourished at the eucharistic altar, the family becomes witnesses to the ends of the world of the tender mercy of God.
When the family prays together, welcomes the hungry and homeless into their hearth, seeks forgiveness from those we have wronged and establishes friendships with neighbors, the family performs its identity in the world as the domestic church.
The joy of love experienced by the family is the joy of the church. And it is this joy that we seek to spread to every nook and cranny of the world. It is perhaps families alone that can perfectly fulfill this missionary mandate.