When I was in Australia I watched a television program which featured children who had gone off the tracks and had become unmanageable. They were sent to a couple in the outback who provided a strict environment for them. Essentially, actions had consequences. No work = no food, etc. It was quite interesting to see one young girl of about 16 who had been involved in binge drinking begin to respond to this discipline. While at first the kids rebelled, gradually the young girl began to appreciate the work she had to do, the people whose home she was in, and even the sheep she had to work with.
At one point she was up early in the morning working and stated that this was the first time in 16 months she had not put makeup on. She felt differently inside and did not need makeup to bolster her opinion of herself. She had come to accept herself and could face the world as she was. This was a remarkable step forward.
This story is an illustration of how important our self-identity is. If we don’t feel secure in who we are, if we are ashamed of ourselves or feel fragile on the inside we will use all sorts of things to give us confidence- even things that are destructive such as binge drinking. We will put on all sorts of false personas to hide our fears so we can continue with our daily lives- while dying inside at the same time. One of the greatest gifts a family can give is to tell each person of the family who they are, to help them know themselves, and enable them to become free. We can only live and act out of our identities. Husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, and children all help each other to become more secure in who they are. Praise at the appropriate moments, discipline when necessary, laughter to show that life is not always a serious thing, hugs, and all the other contact we have with each other are meant to affirm us in who we are. It is only when we feel safe on the inside that we can begin to live with a sense of adventure on the outside.
May our families become places where we are able to become who we are meant to be and where we are able to help each other come into the fullness of our identities.
The doctrine that most bewilders and disturbs Christians outside the Catholic faith is the Immaculate Conception. It is surprising for many to come to see that it is profoundly Christological. Mary’s being conceived without sin has, as its ultimate reference, the birth of Jesus. Christ, to save us, had to truly assume our humanity. But to be organically connected to all men, Christ had to receive His humanity from another human person. All human beings receive their humanity from their parents.
The miracle of Jesus birth, which all Christians agree on, is that Jesus receives His humanity only from Mary. He is conceived by her through the Holy Spirit. The problem here is original sin. All human nature is stained by this first sin and so the only humanity for offer would seemingly be a fatally tainted one. Therefore, out of sheer logical necessity, God needed somehow to prepare a purified human nature that Christ could receive. This becomes the reason why Mary had to be conceived without sin.
But the mystery becomes even more profound. Remember that the only way in which human nature can be purified of all sin is through the Cross of Christ. To understand the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception properly, it is important to note Mary’s relationship to Jesus. When she accepts to bear God’s Son, Mary cries out to Elizabeth, “My spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour.” (Luke 1:47) Here, Mary states that she has experienced the salvific power of God. Now if Mary has any sin, original or actual, she could not have given to Christ a spotless humanity. But, on the other hand, Christ was coming into the world to be that remedy for sin. This would seem to create a chronological impasse: Mary had to be sinless, but the one to remove sin was the coming Christ. Thus, there would seem to be no entry point for Jesus – all were tainted with sin.
Here we touch the mystery of time. We understand and experience time as linear. However, with God, all time is present to Him. Rev 13:8 speaks of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. Humanly speaking this is not conceivable. How can Christ have died before the world was created? Now to God all times (past, present, and future) are eternally present to Him. Thus, what for us is a future reality is for God eternally present. In God, the grace of the Cross was applied to Mary so that she was conceived without sin. She too experienced the grace of Jesus, the Saviour. From our human perspective we would say this was done “in advance” (or proleptically). But from eternity’s perspective, it was a “present reality” – as are the Cross and Resurrection.
The logic of the Mary’s immaculate conception is clear: for Christ to have a real humanity untainted by sin, Mary had to be preserved from sin. She too is caught up in the salvific design of God, not by exclusion but by the application of the grace of the Cross in her very conception.
The modern world, with its emphasis on autonomy, sees marriage as nothing other than a contractual agreement by which two parties receive pleasure. When either party is no longer satisfied, the contract can be dissolved, and the parties concerned can look elsewhere for their satisfaction. If the human person is truly autonomous and marriage is only a vehicle which enhances the pleasure of the individual, then the world would be correct in encouraging marriage partners to get out of difficult marriages so their full potential could be realized elsewhere. But notice that this assumes that nothing happens in marriage; it is only a contract. Like golfing, painting, pursuing a career, etc. marriage is just a means by which the individual can achieve some form of personal growth. When that appears to be not happening, move on.
Scripture however points us to the mystery that is at the heart of marriage. When our primordial parents first came together they are said to become ‘one flesh’ (Gen 2: 24). This is often read as ‘they had sexual intercourse’ but in fact it is something much deeper than that. Sexual relations are a privileged expression of what one-fleshness is. The first use of the word one is in Gen 1:5; “and there was evening, there was morning, day one.” This first single day had two components, the evening and the morning. The other key text is Deut 6:4: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” From our understanding of the Trinity we know that God is only one and yet within that oneness there are three divine Persons. And so, with the human union within marriage. There are clearly two differentiated people, a man and a woman. Yet in their marital union they bring into being a new entity, a new psychosomatic union. They are now one flesh. The communion and unity that exists within the Godhead, now, on the created level, finds expression in marriage. The indissoluble communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is reflected in the marriage bond.
Paul points to this in Eph 5:31-32. After discussing the relationship between a husband and wife, he quotes the text from Genesis: “and the man shall leave (his) father and (his) mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” But then, in a flash of brilliance, Paul shows that this is not only referring to the union of man and woman, but also to Christ and His Church. Paul is showing us that the great mystery of marriage participates in Christ’s divine love for the Church which can never be broken. Human marriage reflects and is grounded in this divine mystery.
Marriage is therefore always more than just a human calculation of how to achieve more fulfillment. Their consent to each other moves them beyond themselves and brings them into the salvific process of Christ. Marriage is not a contract that can be broken, but a covenant which brings about a new reality (the one-fleshness) which is indissoluble and unites them to Christ. This is a great mystery which the world cannot understand. But this divine and saving love is also a great mystery that Christians can experience within their own marriages.
“Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith.” Heb 12:2
It is tempting to think that we can solve the world problem by politics or strategies or power. It is a temptation to think that we can change our culture’s nosedive into the culture of death by having enough votes or political clout or societal influence. It is a subtle temptation. We are led to believe that we can achieve great good by getting control of the process. Tantalizing as this may be, it can never achieve what God wants for us. Above all He wants our surrender to Him and His loving will.
In thinking about this, it is important to state that it is critical to have good laws and godly leaders. When this does not happen, our society decays. Evil laws are enacted and the common good (life, freedom, truth) is destroyed. There are those who are called by God to be deeply involved in the political process, shaping policy, etc. But, for the Christian, that is never an end in itself. There is always something deeper and more real. If we are not careful, we can mistake the means for the end, itself.
As Christians, our first aim is to “fix our eyes on Jesus”. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can take the place of this. Our lives, our thought, our hopes, our dreams must be based on Him. He is our life and our salvation. No political process, no political leader, no specific policies will establish a perfect society as we live in a fallen world. Only Jesus is our life and our salvation. When we substitute these other things (as necessary as some of them may be), we end up falling into a form of idolatry. In the end, such idolatry will destroy us.
Our task, as Christians, is to keep our eyes on Jesus. Regardless of what is happening in our lives or in our society, we need to turn to Him and rely on Him, and Him alone. Not on our machinations, our political intrigues, our sophisticated strategies. We need to reject all that and put our focus on the Lord. Only from this place of trust in God will we be able to act properly in our society. Only then, can we shape it for good.
The early Christians lived in a society that was very hostile to them politically. The government tyrannized them, marginalized them, ridiculed them, insulted them and finally killed them. But the Christians of that era knew that the truth was only to be found in Jesus. The forces against them were evil and they, as human being, could not control them. But they knew that despite the great evil that was going on around them, Christ was in control. Their hope, their trust, their life was in Him. Yes, they knew they though they might suffer and die, Christ would overcome all. The final word He speaks is resurrection.
We need to keep our focus on Christ who alone is our peace. If we seek any other answer, we will be deceived. All our work, all our efforts must proceed from Him. But we must never trust our work, our strategies, our plans. We must come to the place where our trust is only in Him.
How do we see our families? We often experience them as a great amount of work! Dishes always to be done, ironing never quite caught up with, squeezing in personal time together, running off to baseball games, being the eternal taxi driver, etc., etc. Family life can also be a source of great stress and worry when someone is sick, or money is not there for an emergency, or the job is not secure. It can also be the place of joy and sorrow when our children experience success, win a competition, or celebrate another birthday, or when a child becomes rebellious, or rejects our love. All of these are part of the mosaic of family life.
But there is one aspect of family that we don’t often grasp until it is over. Family life gives each father and mother the experience of having their own little kingdom for a short period of time. They are the supreme rulers (and yet are utterly bound by the needs of their children!) When the children are very young, there is a profound sense of being a community together. Mothers and fathers create their own unique culture in their home: what rituals they have for birthdays, how they will pray together, how to celebrate Christmas, what types of games they play together, how they will read books out loud, etc. Dad and Mom shape and determine the world they and their children live in, and are like rulers in a wonderfully small world. They get to say how things will go…at least for a limited period of time. The great joy when the children are young is that everyone is under the same roof. Everyone depends on each other. Gathering around the table, meal after meal, we become bonded together. Our differing personalities, our joys, our squabbles and our idiosyncrasies all become part of family history. (Once I had rented a log splitter and tried strenuously to start it up, but to no avail. I was preparing to hitch it up to the van to take it back to the shop, when my youngest boy asked, “What’s this switch for, Dad?” It turned out to be the On-Off switch which I had overlooked! Doctorates are of little use before the powerful common sense of a little boy! Needless to say, this incident has become part of our family lore.)
Father and mothers have their own kingdom, with their little subjects, for just a few short years. It is a time when children are totally open to their parents and long to be with them, absorbing their love and attention. In a way, God is giving us the opportunity to create our own Edens- at least for a brief period of time, and we need to make the most of it. Then comes the stage when each child must grow into their own identity, assert their own will power, develop their own interests outside and apart from their family. This is right and healthy. At this point, the family does not resemble a kingdom so much as a hectic flight school where each child is learning to take off and take hold of their own life. But the success of their flight depends upon how well Dad and Mom have ruled their precious kingdom and made it into a secure experience of trust and love. O Lord, Thy kingdom come… especially in our families.
Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar via Compfight cc
In the third part of Familiaris Consortio [FC] JPII asks the family to “become what you are.” This request stands in contradiction to what the world is constantly telling us. In the West, governments and other societal forces are demanding that we change the way we understand marriage and family and to re-construct our vision of family along very different lines. Now divorce, contraception, multi-partners of either gender, and intentional and induced childlessness are to be the norm. 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 here is a true sign of contradiction in the midst of all this secular confusion. The biblical mandate 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 secular promises ultimately are delusional and this is confirmed by the increasing wreckage we see amongst families which buy into this way of thinking.
FC also says that “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, out 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 on a daily basis. The temptation was always to fall back into their former sinful lifestyles. But this identity was alienated from God. Instead, Paul encouraged them to forget what had gone on before and to continue striving 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 are in Christ. Our task as Christians is to remain rooted in Christ, affirming who we truly are in Him so that we can gain eternal life. This is the high-calling and drama of Christian 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 deform our understanding of the family in Christ. ‘Families, be what you truly are.’
Scripture instructs us in certain places to do something we do not like to do: wait. Isaiah 40:31 shows us that waiting is key to being gaining strength. “They that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” Elsewhere (Is 49:23), God links waiting with protection: “Those who hopefully wait for Me will not be put to shame.” The psalms are filled with the admonition to wait. Ps 27:14 simply commands us to wait: “Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for the LORD.” Ps 37:7 instructs us to rest as we wait: “Rest in the LORD and wait patiently for Him.” Proverbs 20:22 ties waiting with salvation: “Wait for the LORD, and He will save you.” In the NT the disciples are told “to wait” for the coming of the Holy Spirit Who does not come upon them until 9 days later (see Acts 1:4). Philippians 3:20 tells us that our ‘citizenship is in heaven; from it also we eagerly wait for a Savior.”
Waiting is not easy. We face problems, we see things that need to be corrected; we are impatient with the problems in our families and in own personal lives and we want to act. But often, far too often, we are acting “in the flesh” (see Phil 3:3-4; Gal 5:17). That is, we are urged on by our own frail and fractured nature which often does not see things correctly. We do things in our own power rather than waiting for God’s word to us. We rely on our own insights and strength rather than on God’s. Abraham had received God’s covenant along with the promise of a child. Rather than waiting for God’s provision, he and Sarah took another route. Abraham had a child through the maid servant, Hagar, which was the cultural norm in those days. But it was not God’s will and it created much trouble. (See Gen 16.) Peter rushes and cuts off the ear of Malchus during the Jesus’ arrest. He could not see that the crucifixion was the Father’s provision to win back the world. Peter needed to wait and hear what the will of the Father was, rather than presuming he knew it (see John 18:10 and Matt 16:22-23).
Whatever the circumstances of our lives, no matter what we are facing, we need to find that place of quiet before God, ‘rest in Him’, and hear what His word is to us and then proceed. We are all in God’s hands, ourselves, our families, and those whom we consider in some form or other to be our enemies. God is working His will out. We need to trust in Him and be led by His Spirit. In this way, we will end up doing the will of our Father and thereby helping to bring peace to ourselves, to our families and to the world. “For the vision is yet for the appointed time; it hastens toward the goal, and it will not fail. Though it tarries, wait for it; for it will certainly come, it will not delay.” (Habakkuk 2:3)
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 as we, the creatures, are giving a command to the 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!
Our concept of God deeply influences how we pray to Him. A false understanding of God would lead us to try to enlighten Him about our needs, using lots of words, hoping to convince Him to act for us (see 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 in His prayer reveals the actual nature of God. He is a caring and all-knowing Father. The key is that God 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 our 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 knows everything about us and is working things out for us. In prayer, we are reaffirming the truth that God really is our Father and that we can trust Him. We do not ask for the provision of our needs out of 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 and my heart can now be at peace. 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 daily bread for his children.
All civilizations, if they are to last, are founded on the principle of corporate life. That is, individuals must mature to the point of being able to live for others beyond themselves. In this sense, the modern west has become an aberration. This is particularly seen within the family. Whereas mothers and fathers should be living to help each other and to lay down their lives for their children and the family as a whole, the driving force in western societies is the desire to secure individual rights and personal autonomy. This has made us self-centered rather than being other-centered which has had a pernicious effect as it distorts both society and the individual.
In contrast, the Church teaches that the family is the basic cell of society. As JPII said, “the future of humanity passes by way of the family” (FC 86). During Vatican II, Bishop Fiordelli of Prato, Italy made the point in the Council debates that the Christian family was the smallest articulation of the Church. From this we see that the family is of critical importance to society and the Church. In effect, the family is part of God’s design for saving the world. This is difficult for many in the modern world to grasp because we have adopted an atomistic view of the person. We see the person as being absolutely autonomous; any corporate dimension is accidental and not essential to the person’s identity.
But Scripture shows us that the family is part of who the person is. Indeed, salvation is always, and at the same time, deeply personal and corporate. It is never individualistic. Noah was a righteous man and ‘found favor in the eyes of the Lord (Gen 6:8).’ Because of his relationship to God, he and his family were saved (Gen 6:18). The covenant with Abraham was to him and his family to all generations. All families (not all individuals) of the earth would be blessed in him (Gen 12:3). During the Passover, the Jews were saved within the family context. The Passover over is a family meal. All who were within their family homes, eating the ritualistic meal and under the blood of the Passover lamb were saved from death (Ex 12:3ff).
It is clear that God uses families as a means to work out salvation. That is why the genealogy of Abraham’s family forms the basis of the OT that goes right up to the beginning of the NT. It can be observed that in the OT there is no covenant without the family. The covenant, the teaching of the Law and its rituals were passed on within the family. In the NT, we can observe the practice of household baptisms (Acts 16:15, 31; 1 Cor 1:16). In the new covenant, the family becomes the place where the Holy Spirit is present and where the salvation of the family members is being worked out (cf. 1 Cor 7).
It only makes sense therefore that the family has become the prime target of evil. Once the family is destroyed, both society and the Church are greatly weakened. The myth of the autonomous individual is simply that, a myth. The truth is that a person needs a family to grow into psychological, emotional and spiritual health. As JPII said, “The family finds in the plan of God the creator and redeemer not only its identity, what it is, but also its mission, what it can and should do. … Family become what you are.” (FC 17)
We don’t spend much time thinking about our identity. However, the truth is that the actions of our lives and how we feel about life and others flow from our perceptions of who we are. This, as we shall see, is why the father figure is crucial in our lives.
Let us look at the Temptations of Christ in Matt 4. Jesus had been baptized by John in the Jordan and the Father’s voice had proclaimed: This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17)’. God the Father was affirming the identity of Jesus and it is clear that Jesus was His Son. Immediately, this truth about His identity is put to the test. As in Eden, Satan’s first ploy was to plant doubt in Jesus’ mind: “If you are the Son of God…” So much hangs on that small word “if”. ‘If you’re the Son, then make stones into bread.’ The temptation here is to use our powers in ways to satisfy ourselves rather than checking in first with the Father and seeing what He wants. Jesus, however, as an obedient Son reaffirms His complete reliance on the Father. ‘We live on every word that comes from God.’ The devil tries a second time to assault Jesus’ identity: ‘If you are the Son, jump from the roof of the Temple.’ Again, it would seem that if Jesus didn’t do what Satan wanted, He wouldn’t be the Son. Satan wants Jesus to assert some form of independence from the Father in which He does His own thing. But Jesus avoids the trap by stating, ‘You shall not put God to the test.’ At this point, Satan knows He can’t move Jesus from His identify as the obedient Son of the Father. He changes tact and promises to give all the world to Jesus if He would but worship him. This was an invitation to possess all the world — but without the price of the Cross. Jesus, however, remains firm in His identity as the Son and simply says, ‘Be gone!’. He will serve only the Father. Jesus wins over temptation because He knows his identity; He knows who He truly is- the Son of the Father.
In this fallen world, we are all in desperately in need of fathering. We need that divinely ordained voice in our lives which tells us who we are and confirms us in our identity. This is not an arbitrary voice but the voice of truth and the voice of authority. It gives us our ‘being’. As Jesus heard the voice of His Father in His baptism, so we need to hear this same voice of God tell us that we are His and that we are loved by Him. It is not a love that is won. It is a love that is received because the Father made you. It is in this knowledge that we alone can rest. However, the structures and forces in a fallen world actively seek to destroy this truth and prevent us from ever coming to know it. These fallen forces seek to create fear in our lives and gnaw at the truth. We need to remember that it is above all the father who gives identity to his child, who tells him who he is so that the child can be at peace.
Our society has declared war against fatherhood for the last several decades. Most men are deeply wounded themselves, never having been properly affirmed in their identity and find it difficult to affirm their own children. Let us pray that God would send His grace into our world to heal the wounds of men so they can begin to father aright their families. Let us pray that God will father us in ways both direct and indirect so that, like Jesus, we may know who we truly are and may overcome temptation and the world.