Christian Marriage and Family Life is a Domestic Church
I woke up in church this morning. Not on a cold dark floor or surrounded by votive candles and stained glass, but next to my partner in faith, my best friend, my beloved wife of 38 years, Laurine. Our five grown children are now out of the home, but they are still a part of our community. One will soon be moving home again as he sorts out his future. Christian parenting never ends. It is a vocation from which there is no vacation.
From antiquity the Christian Family has been called “the domestic church.” Perhaps the most quoted use of the term is from the “Golden Mouth”, the Bishop John Chrysostom, writing in Antioch (the city where they were first called Christians, Acts 11:26) in the fourth century.
After all, the church is fundamentally a relational reality, “when two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.” said the Lord. (Matt. 18:20) Also, at least within the Catholic and Orthodox Church, Christian Marriage is a Sacrament. In other words, it is a participation in- and sign of- the very Life of the Trinity!
It is also a source of grace for the spouses, calling them to holiness by teaching them the path of selfless love. As the Apostle Peter wrote to the early Christians, we are “partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1)
We were baptized into the Lord Jesus Christ and we now live in His Body. The Christian family IS a church, the smallest and most vital cell of that Body. The extended church community is a family of families. This understanding is more than piety–it is sound ecclesiology, solid anthropology, and is meant to be experienced as reality for those who are baptized into Christ Jesus.
For those called to live their Christian life in a consecrated Christian marriage, it is in the domestic church where progress in the spiritual life finds its raw material. The question we face every day becomes whether we live Christian marriage and family as a vocation by responding to grace.
Will we allow the Lord to give us the eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to accept the hidden invitations to love found beneath the surface of the daily stuff of Christian Marriage and Family life?
The Greek word translated “emptied” in a profoundly important Christological passage in the letter to the Philippians is “kenosis.” St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians concerning our call to enter into the self emptying of Jesus:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself “(Phil. 2:5)
This Greek word refers to the voluntary pouring out-like water-of oneself in an act of sacrificial love. This “emptying” is the proper response of the love of a Christian for the One who first loved us.
It is also the beating heart of the vocation of Christian marriage and family life. There is a “domestic kenosis“, a domestic emptying out which comes in the ordinary “stuff” of daily life in a Christian family.
There is also a “domestic ascesis“, a way of living an ascetical life, when we embrace the real struggles involved in living this out way of life as a vocation in Christ. That is experienced through the real sacrificial love involved in raising children, having our hearts broken, and simply going through all of the travail involved in parenting – which never ends.
In fact, parenting unfolds into grand-parenting. When lived vocationally in the Lord Jesus Christ, it is a way of love, a way of sacrifice and giving, and love can sometimes hurt.
However, we need to move from the realm of fuzzy feelings or theological theory to reality – the emptying is lived out in a unique and grace filled way in Christian marriage and family life.
As Christian spouses, mothers and fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers, we need to have our eyes opened like the disciples on the Road, the way, to Emmaus, whom we read about in the Gospel. (Luke 24: 13ff)
This call of married love and family life is more than a covenant (though it is that), more than an ordinance (though it is that) – Christian Marriage is a Sacrament, a participation in the very life of God through which and for which we are given grace, the very Life of God.
It is an invitation to learn the more excellent way of love of which the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians. (1 Cor. 12:331) It is a call, a vocation, to holiness.
When the right choices are made in this life of “domestic kenosis“, we exercise our human freedom, empowered by grace, and choose to give ourselves away in love to the “other.” In so doing, we are gradually transformed into an image, a living icon, of Jesus Christ and we participate in His Kenosis, his voluntary self – emptying.
This way of holiness is not easy, as anyone who has lived the vocation for more than three months can attest, but make no mistake; it is a very real path to holiness. It is also a wonderful one. The true challenge lies in the choices we make, daily, hourly, and even moment-by-moment.
Two trees often appear in the garden of domestic life. They both invite the exercise of our human freedom, our decision to choose. There is one which resembles the one in Eden where the first Eve said, “no I will not serve.”
We are always tempted to choose the “fruit” of this tree of self centered-ness whenever we seek to hide from the call and refuse to love, by emptying ourselves “kenotically”
Then, there is the one that resembles and actually participates in the tree on Calvary, where Christ the New Adam embraced the whole world and began it anew.
There, where the “second Eve,”(as the fathers of the Church called Mary, the Mother of Jesus) stood with the beloved disciple John, beheld her crucified Son and her Lord, “Love Incarnate”, and again proclaimed her “Fiat“, her voluntary “yes.”
In doing so, Mary models the response of all Christians for all time.
However, as it was with the Mother of the Lord, (both when the angel Gabriel came and made that extraordinary announcement, and again on that mountain when she beheld her Son and Savior), the choice to say “Yes” is our own— to be made daily, even hourly.
With these choices, presented to us from the moment we open our eyes every morning to the time we close them at night, we proceed on the way of the Cross through death and into the eternal now of Resurrected life in Jesus Christ.
We are invited to live Christian family life as a domestic church. We are also given the grace to do so. The choice is ours.
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