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We all think our families are important. In fact, if I asked you what the most important things in your life were you would probably say, “My faith, my family, and my friends,” or something like that. I know I would. Most people not only think their own families are important, but that family, as such, is an important ideal or value. However, most of us have a hard time explaining why. Just why are our families so important to us? Why are families important at all?
The Church teaches that the family is “the vital cell of society.” Now, this isn’t just something clever that some priest in the Vatican thought up over espresso one morning. And it’s not something new that they only figured out recently. It turns out that the concept of family is one of the most consistent themes in the whole of the Scriptures. So we’ll start there.
The Old Testament
The Old Testament begins with the story of creation. In fact, there are two creation stories at the beginning of the book of Genesis. They each emphasize different things, but the one thing they have in common is placing the creation of humanity as the crown of creation. The first creation story concludes: Then God said: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and over all the wild animals and all the creatures that crawl on the ground.” God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them, saying: “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gen. 1:26–28)
So the human person is the high point of creation because the human person, of all creatures, is made in God’s image. But we are created, from the beginning, as male and female. This means that our sexual difference is not only given by God, but is a direct reflection of the divine life. The first commandment that God gives in the Bible is “Be fruitful and multiply,” inviting his new creation to participate in the very godly thing that God does: creating new life. This theme is echoed in the second creation story:
The LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being. Then the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and he placed there the man whom he had formed. The LORD God said: “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him.” So the LORD God formed out of the ground various wild animals and various birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each of them would be its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals; but none proved to be the suitable partner for the man. So the LORD God cast a deep sleep on the man, and while he was asleep, he took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. The LORD God then built up into a woman the rib that he had taken from the man. When he brought her to the man, the man said: “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; This one shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of ‘her man’ this one has been taken.” That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body. The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame. (Gen. 2:7, 18–25)
The first creation story highlights the importance of humanity by making it the capstone of creation, the last and best thing God makes. The second story does it by making the man the first thing that God creates, and the importance of the male-female dynamic is captured in the creation of the woman, who is made not out of the earth like the man, but out of his own flesh and blood. In both stories the message is clear: The most important thing that God creates is the human person; in fact, the whole of creation is, in a certain sense, for them. The great dignity of humanity consists in being made in the image and likeness of God, and this image and likeness is shown most perfectly not in the human being all alone, but together in a sexual union that allows them both to fulfill the first commandment, to be fruitful and multiply. The message of those first Scriptures is clear: The human person is made for family.
But families are not perfect. From the beginning Adam and Eve, our first parents, are something of a mixed bag. It is their sin that drives humanity from the paradise of Eden, and their own sin affects—we might even say infects—their children so much that the first murder takes place not between strangers or rival soldiers or bitter enemies, but between brothers. God’s first great intervention in human history is to save a particular family, that of Noah, during the days of the Great Flood. Most of what follows reads like dead space in the Scriptures because it consists largely of lists—lists and lists and lists . . . of families. This is the record of the descendants of Terah. Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran, and Haran became the father of Lot, and so on. The names might sound foreign to us now, but this is really not so different from the stories that many of us tell around the kitchen table: “Tom and Beth had Sarah back in ’82, but that was before they lived in the old house on Seventh . . .” The Scriptures tell the very same sort of story that we tell today, but the scriptural story is there to help us understand our own story.
The importance of family starts to really crystallize, however, when God finally chooses a family of his own. Abram, who began as just another of the names in the ancient lists, is called by God to leave home and family to start his own family anew in a distant land. In so doing he becomes Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people. Abraham’s story is all about family. He and his wife, Sarah, are infertile. God promises a son but since Sarah is past menopause Abraham presumes that the son must come from someone else. He uses a surrogate named Hagar and has a son by her, whom he calls Ishmael. The familiar story of Abraham taking his son Isaac to be sacrificed to God is usually told to illustrate the importance of faith even in difficult circumstances, but it is just as much a story of family. Abraham’s heart is breaking for the whole of the story because he is being asked to give up what is most precious to him—his own son. Of course, for us Christians, this is a kind of preview or foreshadowing of what God himself is going to do in the sacrifice of his own son, Jesus. But even on its own the story of God’s choosing the Hebrew people is a powerful testimony to his care for, love of, and devotion to families.
The New Testament
We call the mystery by which God himself took on human flesh and entered into the human story the Incarnation. This literally means the “enfleshment” of the Lord. While this can sometimes confuse us, Jesus is God; he always was God, and it was as God, from all eternity, that he entered into time in the womb of Mary. He was born into the world like any other human baby, and in so doing he accepted a whole family history. Think of all those long lists of names we read in the Gospels around Christmastime: “And so-and-so begat such-and-such.” These are the real live people who were Jesus’s grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents. And just like your great-granddaddy might have been a bootlegger or a thief or a cowboy, Jesus’s family tree is full of spotty fruit too. But in accepting this whole family history Jesus shows us two things: first, that even this history is important, or else the lists would have been left out; and second, that great goodness can be found in even the most dysfunctional of families.
It’s important to remember just what kind of a family situation Jesus was born into. The Holy Family was first of all blended; at the very least Jesus was not the biological child of Joseph, and as the tradition has it that Joseph was previously married there is a good chance that “the brothers of the Lord” whom we meet later in the Gospels were Jesus’s stepbrothers from Joseph’s first marriage. This isn’t just pious tradition, either. The word adelphoi, which is what the Gospel writers used for “brothers,” in this case means “brothers,” “brothers and sisters,” “cousins,” and “anyone like my brother.” However Jesus was related to these people, the Holy Family was not a conventional one and probably wouldn’t even stand up to the scrutiny of many of our parishes.
Jesus is himself the result of an unplanned pregnancy, and to top it all off his family was homeless at the time of his birth. Shortly after this they became refugees, probably something very much like today’s illegal immigrants fleeing from a corrupt political situation. This is important because in his story Jesus is completely set apart from all other gods of the people. The heroes of the pagans always come from noble bloodlines and have exalted family stories—even the Buddha was born a prince—but only in the Christian story do we have a God born as a pauper.
Jesus, simply by being who he is, reveals the two greatest mysteries of God. We have already mentioned the first: how it is that Jesus can be at once both fully God and fully man. If that paradox is too much for you, then just hold on to your seat. The great mystery that lives at the heart of God is this: God is himself both one and three. This is the mystery we Christians call the Blessed Trinity. I know, I know, it seems remote and unrelated. I pray to God, and probably the way I pray to God wouldn’t change very much whether God was a Trinity or not, but it does affect the way you relate to God, and hopefully the way we relate to each other.
Because we typically talk about the Trinity in terms of the “One in Three” or the “Three in One,” people tend to think it’s all about numbers. It’s not. The Trinity is all about relationship. In fact, the whole point of the Trinity is that God lives in relationship with himself. The Trinity is not simply a helpful way for us to understand God, but is the way God actually is. God the Father, from all eternity, actually is Father. He does what fathers do: He fertilizes, he begets, he creates, he cares for, and he sustains. God the Son, who is Jesus, is the son from all eternity. Jesus doesn’t become God’s son at some point in his life, nor does God become son when Jesus is born of Mary; God the Father relates to himself as Son, and that bond of relationship, that perfect love, is the Holy Spirit. This is a great mystery—the greatest of mysteries, in fact—and philosophers and theologians have argued for centuries about how best to talk about it. That’s not terribly important for us. What is important is that God is a sort of family, even before we know him; before anything at all is created God lives in bonds of love with himself.
So God freely chooses to enter into human history as a particular man, born to a particular family, as a member of a particular tribe, itself part of a particular nation. The Jewish people were always conscious of their divine election—the fact that God had chosen them from among all the peoples of the earth—to be holy. They developed and cultivated complex codes of ritual purity and observance, and even shunned outsiders as unclean. Strangely, however, while Jesus was undeniably Jewish, he freely broke this “holiness code” as he saw fit, and he associated openly with sinful Jews: tax collectors, prostitutes, and fringy religious types. Most important for us, he befriended pagans.
While the Jews had a long history of recognizing certain Gentiles or non-Jews as righteous, cooperating openly and freely with them was never an option. What’s more, righteous Gentiles were typically Jewish in belief but not by birth. These pagans whom Jesus helped were pagan Romans and Greeks. The Romans were even the political force occupying the country at the time. Even for the most unobservant Jew this was basically treason, and it is to one of these that Jesus gives the highest praise in the whole of the New Testament: “Never in all of Israel have I found such faith.” (Matt. 8:10)
This, again, is extremely important, because it is in Jesus that God seems to be at once validating the particular call of the Jewish people and extending that call to the whole world. This is why Saint Paul can write only a few years after Jesus’s death, Through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendant, heirs according to the promise. (Gal. 3:26–29)
The special bond God shared with Israel and cemented in Jesus is, by faith in Jesus, shared with the whole world. This matches well what Jesus said in his own teaching on the family. Though devoted to his mother, seeing to her needs even to the end on the cross, he was not afraid to teach:
While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers appeared outside, wishing to speak with him. (Someone told him, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, asking to speak with you.”) But he said in reply to the one who told him, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?”And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Matt. 12:45–48)
Jesus affirms the primacy and importance of the family, but turns the criteria for family relationships upside down. “Family” is no longer simply those people related to you by blood, though hopefully it will include them too. Instead God’s own family is made up of those who share faith in Christ Jesus.
The whole story of God’s relationship with humanity is about making us part of his family. Though we are born into our natural families in a natural way, we are born into God’s supernatural family in a supernatural way. Baptism is the birth of water and the Holy Spirit, which allows us to be members of God’s family. Jesus is God’s son by birth, but we are God’s sons and daughters by baptism. This doesn’t make us any less God’s children than Jesus, however. In fact, if anything, just as Jesus is more Son to the Father than any human son is to his own father, so too by baptism we are more son or daughter to God than we are even to our own parents.
From the first moment the Lord saw that it was not good for the man to be alone, the family of humanity has been growing. And since the risen Jesus gave his great commission to his followers to teach and baptize all nations, the family of God, the Church, has been spreading to people of every nation, language, and way of life. The family of God is the most inclusive family imaginable because it aims to include absolutely everybody. And this same God not only allows us but expects us to be part of that great expansion. He demands not only that each of us, to the best of our ability, and our families all together be a sign of this huge, expansive, inclusive family of God but also that we go out into the highways and byways to bring as many along with us as we can.
And so the story goes: Once God chose a man so that he might choose all men. Once God raised up a tribe so that he could gather all the tribes of the earth. Once God raised up a single nation so that he might draw all nations to himself. Once God chose a family so that he might make all families his. Once upon a time God became man, so that through that man you might become part of God’s family too.
by Jon Leonetti
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When asked to name the most important things in our lives, many of us put “family” near the top of our list. But what is the purpose, what is the meaning, of family? How can the family practice the Catholic faith at home, in its parish, and in today’s society? In Mission of the Family, Jon Leonetti explains that evangelization, compassion, and changing the world starts with the members of our family. Discover God’s important mission and purpose for you, your spouse, and your children.
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Product Type Media Books
Author Jon Leonetti
Publisher Beacon Publishing
Number of Pages 160
Book Format Paperback
I found this book very accessible and engaging. This book does a wonderful job emphasizing the familial relationship of the Church, and the evangelical mission of every family. I think it's a great read for anyone who wants to more fully understand the mission and role of the domestic Church within the context of the larger Church!
Great resource for families!
Jon Leonetti puts the family in its rightful context of the Trinity in the Church. Almost a mini-catechism Jon's readable, amusing, and direct style make this a great read for anyone want to grow in faith, family, and the Church.
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