Family Become What You Are

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John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio calls for the family to “become what you are.”  This request stands in contradication to what the world is constantly telling us.  In the West, governments and forces in society are demanding that we change the way we understand marriage and family and to construct our vision of family along very different lines which includes divorce, contraceptuion, multi-partners of either gender, intentional and induced childlessness, etc. The world tells us that human nature is plastic; we are our own gods and we can make of ourselves whatever we please.

JPII’s reminder stand out like a a sign of contradiction opposing all the secular confusion. He is taking up the biblical mandate that proclaims that man has a ‘received’ nature, he is created and must discern what that nature is, if he is ever to be happy. The Word tells us that we have a God, not that we are gods. The promises of secular philosophies ultimately are delusional and this is confirmed by the increasing wreckage we see amongst families which buy into this way of thinking.

Familiaris Consortio begins by saying, “The family finds in the plan of God the Creator and Redeemer not only its identity, what is it, but also its mission, what it can and should do.”  We do not create the structure of the family. Our task is to discover how God has created us and to work within His plan.  This, and this alone, leads to joy.  God does have a plan and purpose for our families and for our marriages.  This is not something we are inventing.  Ultimately, families are a gift to be received.

St. Paul was always encouraging Christians to be what they were.  They had come out of paganism, our of sin, out of destructive lifestyles and had found new life in Christ. In Him, they discovered their true natures as sons of the living God. This is who they truly were. They received this nature in baptism and now they had to live this out day and day.  The temptation was always to fall back into their former identity which was alienated from God.  But Paul encourages them to forget what went before and to continue to strive towards the prize of eternal life.  ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation’ (2 Cor 5:17). The force of our fallen natures and this world pulls us away from the truth of who we truly are. Our task as Christians is to remain rooted in Christ, affirming who we are in Him, so that we can gain eternal life.

This process is the same for the identity of the family.  We must not allow the world to tell us what the family is. We must not let the forces active in our society inimical to the family deform our understanding of the family in Christ.  ‘Families, be what you truly are.’

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Walk By The Spirit

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At the heart of every person’s life is a fundamental struggle that never goes away until we take our last breath.  The Catholic faith has always understood this and provides the grace and means by which we take up this never-ending struggle.  This understanding of the Christian life comes from St. Paul in Galatians 5 verses 16-26.  Here, Paul is taking about the Christian life in general and especially the life in the community of the Church.  He shows that that the struggle is between the impulses of our fallen nature (which he calls the flesh or sarx) and the direction given by the Holy Spirit (which he calls the spirit or pneuma).  They are two very different realities. But which will prevail in our lives? When we are led by our fallen nature it produces bad fruit. We end up in immoral behavior, sensuality, rivalry, outbursts of anger, disputes, drunkenness and the like (see Gal 5:19-21); in other words, all sorts of things that destroy God’s peace in our lives and the lives of those around us.

On our own, we have no chance to overcome these destructive tendencies. Our fallen nature is simply too strong.  But the power to overcome them is found in the grace of Christ which we receive in baptism.  There, that destructive nature is crucified with Christ (Gal 2:20).  As we receive and ‘walk’ (i.e., obey) the Holy Spirit and allow Him to work on our natures, a different type of fruit begins to emerge, fruit that is in accord with Christ’s nature. Now our actions are controlled by God and love, joy, peace and patience begin to be manifest in our lives along with gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22-23).

This seems to be a two-stage process.  First, there is our encounter with Christ where, in baptism, our old nature dies with Him and we receive His nature, i.e. the Spirit (see Rom 6: 1-9).  The second part of the process is where we work out concretely the Lordship of Christ in our lives. This means learning to stop paying attention and obeying the promptings of our old (now crucified) fallen nature and listening to and being led by the Holy Spirit (See Rom 8:14).  The success of this depends on the law of sowing and reaping as Paul makes abundantly clear in Gal 6:8. If we ‘sow to the flesh,’ that is continue to be involved in and indulge our old fleshy ways of doing things (getting angry, being lustful, etc.) then the old fleshly fruit will reappear in our lives. But now something new is added to the equation. Now the power of Christ is actually living within us and so we can turn to Him in our times of temptations and learn to obey the Spirit.

We need to ‘sow to the Spirit’ which means that we incorporate into our lives those practices and habits which open us to the Holy Spirit such as reading God’s Word, availing ourselves of confession regularly, praying the rosary, etc. As Paul says, do not be deceived, we will reap what we sow. Therefore we need to do what we can objectively to open our lives to Christ.  In this way our marriages, our families and our communities will be transformed.

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The Times We Live In

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Jesus confronted the Pharisees and Sadducees and said that they could not read “the signs of the times” (Matt 16:1). Now, It is not always easy to know exactly where we are in history, but we can have a basic sense. Jesus’ enemies refused to see what was going on around them and to acknowledge the miracles and teachings of Jesus. In our case, we are living through unparalleled changes. Whole societies are in full flight from God and His word. Whole cultures (notably in the West) are embracing virtually every form of behavior which is anti-life and anti-God, and doing it with abandon, delight and pride. Like the people of the Babel, we want to build a secular city without any reference to God. We want to becomes gods. The aim is to remove the very last vestige of any God-given law or morality.
In fact, this is actually not “unparalleled.” In the earliest parts of Genesis, man had turned decisively against God. “Then the Lord saw that the evil of man was great on the earth and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” After our embrace of sin in the Fall, evil grew and permeated every facet of the human mind. ‘Every thought continually…’

The law is simple: the more we open ourselves to evil, the more evil we become. Conversely, the more we embrace goodness, goodness also grows. Both holiness and evil have a dynamic character. Neither remain static. The more our society embraces evil, whether it be the killing of innocent life in the womb, the acceptance and normalization of all and any deviant behavior, the rejection of the –God-given nature of marriage or family, etc ., the more it opens itself up to even greater evil. In fact, it cannot stop itself. The thirst for more egregious behavior grows stronger with every new evil conquest. Society has to continue in its own moral decline to prove that it is in control and not God.

In Genesis, the result was the just judgment of God. He mercifully said that this rebellion against good would not continue forever. “And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth” (Gen 6:6) and He sent the Flood. But even in the midst of this judgment, there was a provision for God’s people- the Ark which is the Church of the Lord. Today, as western societies jump with abandon into the avalanche of moral decay, there is still the Ark which God has still holds firm (“the gates of hell shall not prevail… ). This ark is a sign of contradiction. What she puts forth as truth stands in utter contradiction to the values and movements of society. The choice for each person could not be more stark. The difference between the Catholic Church and modern culture grows greater with every passing hour. While these days are dark, we can rejoice as did the early Christians. We have hope because we know the truth and we know that Jesus has left a Church where that truth will be proclaimed and lived until He comes again.

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Our Daily Bread

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In Matt 6:11, Jesus teaches us to ask God, our Father, “to give us this day our daily bread”. It is rather an amazing petition given that we, the creatures, are giving a command to our Creator and Father to meet our daily needs! This would be presumptuous except for the fact that God really is our Father. The truth is that we do rely on the Father for everything and this petition is an acknowledgement of that reliance. When we ask for that daily bread, it really is an expression of our trust that God will provide for us. Only children could be so bold!

Jesus talks about the dynamics of prayer just before giving us the Lord’s Prayer. He shows that we pray to God out of our conception of God. Jesus first points to a false understanding of God where we try to enlighten Him about our needs, using lots of words, hoping to convince Him to act for us (Matt 6:7). This attitude is false because it sees God as little more than an ill-informed deity who can be controlled by our verbosity. By way of contrast, Jesus reveals the true nature of God. He is a caring and all-knowing Father. He already knows our situations: “For the Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him” (Matt 6:8) We must get rid of the idea that we are informing God about our situations. If we could but realize what Jesus is teaching here, our whole experience of prayer would be radically different. Prayer is not about words, but about trust. It is not a con game to get God on our side. He already is! Prayer is the opening up to the reality of who God is.

Once we know that God knows all about us and our needs, our anxious restlessness departs from us. We have a Father who is already working things out for us. In prayer we are reaffirming the truth that God really is our Father and that we can trust Him. This is not based on our feelings; it is based on reality- regardless of our feeling. We do not ask for the provision of our needs in anxiety but in trust and security. In praying the Lord’s prayer we are saying, “Lord, You already know all my needs that I am so desperately anxious about. I give them to You. You know my needs better than I do and You know the best way to answer them. I give all my needs to You knowing that You are working each thing out in ways I cannot even imagine. I know that Your provision will suffice. I know and trust in You because You are my Father.” We can truly ask for our ‘daily bread’ because that is what a good father always does: he provides for his children.

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The Narrative of Creation

In modern academic studies of the Bible it is common to see Genesis 1 and 2 as different accounts of creation. It is as if you could choose between these accounts and select the text which best fits your own theological viewpoint. However, this would be to rely on human wisdom rather than being submitted to the Word that God has revealed. In fact, as we study these texts we see that they are actually dependent on each other.

Gen 1:27 contains a mystery. It states that “God created the man in His
image, in the image of God He created him (‘oto); male and female He created them (‘otam)” What usually goes unnoticed is that there is a tension here. God created first singularly (‘He created him’) and then there is suddenly a plurality (‘He created them’). We hardly notice this and just go unto the next sentence. The key fact which the text is showing us is that there is a beginning single point but that this point becomes differentiated into male and female forms. The problem is that we don’t know how this happens exactly and Gen 1 does not
explain this process.

This tension is only resolved in Gen 2. “And He took one of his (Adam’s)
ribs …and the Lord God built up the rib into a woman” (2:21-22). Gen 2 shows that there is a first creation, Adam, and from him comes the material which God uses to make the first woman. This second text shows us that there is an original beginning point (the man) but this single gendered being, by God’s grace, then issues forth into the differentiated human that we now know. Thus, Gen 2 explains the mysterious text in Gen 1:27.

What also often goes unnoticed is that Gen 1 only speaks of the fecundity of the primordial couple. This text shows us that the purpose of gender is for the procreation of the race. ‘Go forth and multiply.’ Gen 2 only knows of the complimentarity of the male and female, their need for each other. It knows nothing about procreation. Thus, each text is lacking something
essential about the male-female relationship. But put together they form a single account of creation which provides us with the full vision of the
human person and of marriage. Thus chapters 1 and 2 form the narrative of creation. As we study the Scriptures at ever-deepening levels, the tensions in the text actually become the way we discover the depths of God’s wisdom.

Fathers and Bonding

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Fathers and Bonding

John Miller in his book, Calling God Father, remarks that fatherhood is a cultural achievement. Unlike motherhood, which flows from the biological link between the mother and child, the father-bond has to be nurtured and established through rituals and social mores. When fatherhood is no longer seen by society as essential and the laws and customs of a society do not urge men to take up this responsibility, they will flee from it. Witness the situation in the modern world.

In the OT the covenant is tied up with the family and in particular with the role of the father. One of the key rituals is called the Redemption of the First-born. Pharaoh would only let the Israelites go when all the first-born of Egypt died during the night of the Passover. To commemorate this, the Lord commanded Israel to offer up as a sacrifice every first-born of Israel whether of men or beast (Ex 13). Of course, the Lord does not want any child to die and so the father has to give something in exchange for his son’s life. Through this ritual, the father was redeeming his first-born just as God had redeemed His first-born, Israel.

The spiritual and psychological impact of this ritual was enormous and helped establish the bond between father and son. In the modern ritual, the father brings the child to the rabbi and the rabbi asks the father, ‘Will you leave this child at the altar (i.e., let him die) or will you redeem him? The father always redeems his child, knowing that through this ritual he is accepting the responsibility for the life of the child. This means that he will educate the child in the Word of God (Torah), help him develop a trade (to support his family) and to help him find a wife. This ritual binds the father to the son on both the spiritual and physical level.

In our modern context, we have little use for rituals and have virtually no rituals that help the father and child bond. We are greatly diminished by this and our families and culture are accordingly weakened. It would be false to say that there is an easy antidote to this situation which would remedy all. We are simply not there yet. But at least we now can raise the issue of father-child bonding as an essential issue of our day. We need to see the desperate need to discover or create rituals within our homes, our church, and our society which encourage fathers to assume their responsibilities and to celebrate fatherhood.

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Marriage as a Pilgrimage

Occasionally life is described as a pilgrimage. This was more normal in the past. While we don’t often go on pilgrimages to-day, the symbolism still holds true. Like life, pilgrimages are a bit messy, even the best ones have their chaotic moments. They have a beginning and they are meant to reach a final destination. Family life, itself, can be understood in terms of a life-long pilgrimage. The beginning point is the love that a man and woman have for each other and the final destination is heaven. The purpose of our life together is to ensure that each person in our families make it to the end (i.e., to heaven).

In the summer of 2011 many youths walked great distances to Compostello in the mountains of Spain during World Youth Day. They started out singing, laughing, joking, well provisioned, with high hopes, having made vows to reach the end point of the pilgrimage.  Gradually, the hot weather or rain will make the going rough but most were determined to persevere.  This is the nature of a pilgrimage.

Marriage is very much like a pilgrimage.  In the journey of marriage, all sorts of trials will test the mettle of our resolve and of our relationship.  But as husband and wife keep their eyes on the goal (i.e., their final destination), they will keep on keeping on.

Marriage, like any pilgrimage, can get difficult.  What do we do then?  I think that the Church needs to include amongst its cardinal virtues one characteristic that has been practiced by countless couples over the centuries: the virtue of “pig-headed-ness”. It is this very quality that has kept many Christian couples intact in the face of strong secular pressure. This is particularly true to-day because our world no longer understands the mystery of God and has rejected His teaching.  One has to be pretty determined (translated: pig-headed) if you hope to survive and if you do, you will, like Jesus, be a ‘sign of contradiction’ in to-day’s world.
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As pilgrims walk, stones get into their shoes, blisters appear on feet, muscles get tired and the temptation to call the whole thing off grows stronger.  In family life, we are constantly inundated by things too great for us   We are taxed beyond our resources. But that is precisely the point.  We cannot make this marital journey on our own strength.  To be a Christian requires supernatural resources.  There is simply no other way.  Our obstacles, our impossible situations, even those times when we border on despair, all become the opportunities to recognize our limitations and become invitations to cry out to Christ.

Pilgrimages and marriages are supernatural events.  In both we get to know Christ and our brothers and sisters in Him through the very nitty-gritty things of life.  As we persevere in our earthly pilgrimage even if we seem to have failed in the world’s eyes, we will discover we have made it home.  Alleluia!

Creation in Christ

As Christians we read the OT through the lens of the NT which allows us to see more clearly what is going on in the OT because of our experience of Christ. This is particularly true when we look at how the Scriptures portray the creation. The key text is in Gen 1 and 2 where we have the Hebrew narrative of creation. Genesis 1 answers the question about how all things came to be, while Gen 2 explores the question of the exact nature of the man-woman relationship. But the prologue to John’s Gospel acts as a commentary on this creation account and in it we see more deeply into creation and understand the great dynamic that lies at its heart. The Johannine prologue shows us that the Logos (the Greek term for Word) was present at the time of the creation and that this Word was indeed God Himself. Later in verse 1:14 it is revealed that this Word (Logos) took our flesh and dwelt amongst us. This, of course, is in reference to Jesus. He is God and was with the Father before creation began.

Now, the word Logos is an appropriate word here because it means ‘that which holds all things together’ or can have the sense of ‘the inner logic of all things.’ John’s prologue reveals that everything that was created came to be through this Word. Thus, the Word cannot be a created being since all created things come through Him. He therefore must be God, Himself (cf. Jn 1:1) which is what the prologue states. John is showing the special relationship that exists between Christ Jesus and creation.

Jn 1:3 states that all things came into being through (Greek: dia) Christ. “Through” is an important preposition because it shows that Jesus is fundamental to the created order and is its centre. Everything that has being (rocks, trees, stars, men, women, the family, etc.) all receive their constitutive nature from Christ. Hence the term: Christo-centric creation. Jesus is at the very heart of creation and, because all things come through Him, only He can show us the true nature of things. Without Christ, the universe makes no sense because it would no longer have its inner logic (logos). Only those who are open to Christ and are united to Him can come to know the fullness of their own nature. That is why Jesus says that no man comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6). He is simply accurately describing reality as it is. The Father speaks and things come into being through this Word (Jesus). When we fell from God’s grace, the only way back was the way we came into existence, i.e. through this same Word.

This means that as we know Christ more deeply, as we grow more faithful towards Him, we come to know reality more fully. It is only in Christ that we will discover the meaning and ultimate purpose of our own lives, our marriages, our families and of the world because we are created in and through Him. That is very good news for a world that is struggling increasingly in ever greater darkness. The one word of truth in Christ outweighs all the distorting influences of this fallen world and sets us free.

Family Forgiveness

Our families are all too human, but then so too were Jesus’ apostles.  In the Gospels we can see unvarnished glimpses into the community life of the early apostles as they followed Jesus.  These are not edited versions to make them look their best. What the Gospels show us is a group of men who were very human in all their strengths and weaknesses.  In Matt 18: 21 ff we see a situation that should be familiar to anyone who has ever had to live in a family!  Peter wanted to know just how much he had to apply this forgiveness thing that Jesus was talking about.  He could see that a person might even have to forgive someone up to seven times.  Realistically speaking, that is a lot of times to forgive someone who keeps messing up.  Think of your own children or your spouse.  We can get pretty exasperated when they keep doing something wrong.  Surely, we want everyone to be accountable and that is, after all, reasonable. There has got to be a limit which once a person has reached, our patience is legitimately exhausted.

Jesus’ response is, in fact, rather startling.  There can be no limit to our mercy and forgiveness towards others.  That does not mean we are fools or turn a blind eye to real problematic situations or behavior. Christ commands His followers to help each other not fall into sin, to confront this when it happens, and takes disciplinary actions when members of the community refuse to stop sinning. This he sets out in the section in Matthew just before his teaching on forgiveness (Matt 18:15 ff). But then this is followed by His insistence that we must always have a merciful attitude to others.  We can never say that a person will never change.  We cannot know the mysteries of the heart nor can we limit God’s grace.

In family life, there are innumerable times when we have to forgive those around us in small things and in big ones.  Forgiveness is the grease which keeps family life moving in healthy directions. We must seek never to have grudges, never to be spiteful, never to withhold mercy- no matter what. (Here we are reminded of Paul’s definition of love that he gives to the Corinthians / 1 Cor 13.)  Again, Jesus clearly wants us to see situations truthfully and to intervene appropriately at certain times. But undergirding our every attitude and our every action must be mercy. Why?  Because our heavenly Father is merciful to us. So we must treat others likewise. As Jesus teaches us, “Be merciful even as your heavenly father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

Prayer: Entering the Mystery

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Prayer, on one level, is easy to understand. We have a need and we ask God to fulfill that need. But there is also a great mystery to prayer because, in real prayer, we enter into a relationship with God and the mystery of life.

The problem we encounter in prayer is that our human logic does not comprehend the abundance and depth of God’s logic. For example, in Luke’s Gospel we read how Joseph accepted his vocation from God and accepted Mary as his wife while she was pregnant. Now, we would expect that God would now make all the provisions necessary for Joseph to take care of his expectant wife. Yet seemingly that is not the case.
Just when Mary is about to deliver, their whole world is turned upside down.

Augustus Caesar had proclaimed a census and everyone, including Joseph and Mary, had to trudge to their ancestral cities to be enrolled. Mary was due any day now, and they arrived in Bethlehem, all the room had been taken. There simply was no room for them. But surely God knew this. Surely he could have somehow kept a nice, warm, clean room prepared for the holy couple. After all, they were faithful people. What was Joseph thinking at this point? He was following God’s will, had made real sacrifices. Yet things weren’t working out. Wasn’t God going to provide for His own divine Child? Wasn’t the Lord in control of this situation?

On the surface, it would seem that any prayers that Joseph had prayed for the provision for Mary and this Child were not being answered. To make matters worse, Joseph really was a holy man, a just man. Didn’t God care? If you follow God, aren’t things supposed to work out?

When we have needs we should bring them to the Lord. But our problem is that we think God is going to answer them the way we have already worked things out. That is, whether consciously or not, we want God to rubber stamp the solution that we have already come up with. But as the Lord tells us in Isaiah 55:8, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” He does indeed answer our prayers, but often in ways that are very different from what we envision the answer to be. God wanted His Son to be born in a stable, with animals, His first bed being a manager, a feed through where animals ate their food. The Father sent His Son, not in power, but in humility so that all could come to Him: rich, poor, sinful, faithful. The stable shows us that the real value of human life lies not in political power, manipulation, or human praise but rather in simplicity, lowliness, humility. He who is the Bread of life, food for all people, lies in a feeding through for us to receive.

God did provide for the needs of Mary and the baby. God did enable Joseph to take care of his beloved family. It was just in a way that far exceeded anything Joseph could imagine. (See Ephesians 3:20.) May we learn to see receive the answers to prayer that God is working out for us.

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