Pope John Paul once said the Christian family is called to be "a luminous sign of the presence of Christ." The family is a church. It is a worshipping community, a community for teaching the faith and a community which offers itself in service to the common good of society.
We can gain at least an inkling of this when we talk about the Sacrament of Matrimony as uniting a man and a woman in a relationship which mirrors the relationship between Christ and his church. And we gain greater insight into this mystery when we understand the conjugal act as sacramental, as re-affirming the bond which established the marital relationship.
The sacramentality of marriage goes even further than this. Everything about marriage is sacramental -- the couple raising their children, going shopping, earning a living and visiting with their neighbors. By taking the natural human institution of marriage and raising it to a sacrament, Christ has done more than make the marriage ritual sacred. He has made all of daily married life sacred.
Indeed, the sacramental nature of marriage shows how wrong it is to make any division between the sacred and the profane. All of life which is touched by the baptized and confirmed Christian is sacred. All that is human and good is sacramental. And, in a sense, all sin is sacrilegious because it defiles the meaning of something which is sacred.
Christian marriage is unique in that it creates a new community within the universal church. Theologian Colman O'Neill writes "The natural function of Christian marriage, the propagating of the human race, is elevated to the role of building up the mystical body" (Meeting Christ in the Sacraments, p. 246). Parents do more than give their children physical existence. By bringing them to Baptism, they enable them to enter the communion of the saints.
It follows from this that parenting involves more than looking after the physical well-being of one's children. It also includes raising them in the faith and helping them see God's presence in all things. By word and example, parents are "the first heralds of the faith."
Communism has sometimes been defined as a society which takes from each according to his ability and gives to each according to his need. Whether such a lofty goal is achievable on the level of mass society is questionable. It is a goal, however, which every healthy family strives to achieve.
No family ought to expect young children to "earn their keep" or should deprive them of what they need because they don't do a full day's work. The family is also a place where all its members can reasonably expect to find a home or support when they have been struck by serious misfortune.
The family, wrote Pope John Paul, is "the most effective means for humanizing and personalizing society" (Community of the Family, 43). It keeps its members from being anonymous in mass society and it continually reassures them of their uniqueness and personal dignity. One need not strive to establish one's identity by becoming wealthy or famous if one has the support of a strong family.
But while a good family supports its members, it is not closed in on itself. It exercises hospitality and welcome and provides some form of outreach to the wider society. It has a commitment to social justice and evangelization.
The family, the domestic church, is a community called together by God. The couple should nurture their own faith as well as handing it on to their children. The family should be an embodiment of life and love, striving always to forgive and build up the wider universal church.
Today, perhaps as never before, the family is challenged by secularism, a tendency which denies the sacredness of everyday life. Without a sense of the sacred, we are prone to seeing the family as but an arbitrary arrangement for meeting our selfish desires.
But if we see marriage as a sacrament and the family as a communion then family life will be a place to overcome selfishness and to witness to Christ's own death and resurrection. It will be a place of prayer, service and growth in holiness.
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