The Divine Mess of the Family

A wag has said, "The good news about the Catholic Church is, it's like a big family. The bad news about the Catholic Church is, it's like a big family." And this is pretty accurate. The Church, like the family and real life, is messy. That's okay though, because Christianity is not averse to beginning discussions of high-flown concepts like the Glory of God by referring us to the nearest squalling kid or black eye. So let us begin the celebration of the Jubilee, not with poetry about angels and sunbursts, but with the realization of the great thing families do for us: they teach us we are sinners. And that is not high flown theology but a "fact as practical as potatoes" according to G.K. Chesterton.

The family is the first great School of Charity and Arena of Spiritual Warfare where we learn the first lessons of life: that we are loved and that we are deeply selfish. The first lesson of the family is that we are loved. God made us in his image, male and female. Just as man and woman by their mutual love reflect the mutual love of the Father and the Son, so they image in the children born of that love the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son. We exist because we are reflections of the God of love. And the truth of this is not lessened one whit by how well or poorly we happen to have been aware of that fact any more than the face of an artist is altered when somebody throws mud on his great self-portrait. The image may be (and often is) distorted by manifestations of human sin like divorce, abuse and infidelity. But the original image of the God who made the family, however distorted, is still there.

Which brings us to the other reality: it is in the family that we first encounter and feel the effects of sin. Often the pattern can look like this:

As children, we are greedy, we squabble and we bonk each other with our blocks. One of the earliest words we learn is "MINE!" As we grow older we confront Powerful Beings who adjudicate such matters like gods and make us eat our peas to boot. So, as children, we naturally assume they must be omnipotent and omniscient. But as we get older, we find it ain't so. They are powerful and smart, but also weak and foolish, like us. Eventually, we decide we are extremely wise in discovering this and are thereby authorized to do as we like. This works fine until we discover that this knowledge has not made us one whit less weak and foolish. If we have our heads and hearts screwed in right, we eventually return to honoring God and the parents he gave us and the pattern begins again in our own families. What do we make of it all?

We make a fully human life, if we place ourselves and our families in the loving care of the Blessed Trinity. For the reality is that God has chosen to reveal himself in a fully human way. And so the very messiness of the family-the whole circus of love, dirt, confusion, laughter, tears, triumph, anguish, sin, and redemption-is the matrix in which children are taught the rough-and-tumble of discipleship to Jesus, our struggle with sin and the great fact that love is stronger than death. For the wonder of sin is that it can be forgiven. And the place we first discover this is usually not in a theology class, nor even in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but from our mommies and daddies when they teach us to parrot "sorry" for punching our brother and then lavish forgiveness on us for saying it. Families introduce us to the Mystery of the Mess and show us (by making us live through it) something of the Mystery of the Mass.

Catholic Faith attributes the Mess, not to Dumb Luck, Fate or an uncaring God, but to real choices. The Mess started (says the Catholic tradition) when superhuman spirits called angels chose to make themselves rather than God the center of their own worship. This event (if we can speak of events that occur outside space and time) is called the fall of Satan and his angels. According to Catholic Tradition, these fallen superhuman spirits then turned their attention to human beings and (seeking in their malice to harm God's children since they could not harm God) tempted them to do what they had done: worship themselves rather than God. This is the meaning of the story in Genesis 3 where the serpent promised our First Parents they would be "like gods" knowing good and evil.

The tragedy of human existence and the source of the Mess, says the Catholic Tradition, is that the first man and woman took the bait. They disobeyed God, turned from communion with him and, in so doing, bequeathed to us "original sin." This does not mean we are blamed for Adam and Eve's sin. It means we suffer its consequences. What they lost-communion with God-they could not pass on to us. Thus, original sin is not so much a thing, as a lack of something, like a spiritual birth defect. And the effects of that sin, which dispose us to sin ourselves, we can see by turning on the news every night or, clearer still, by looking in a mirror.

How is this "good news"? Because, unlike Fate, Blind Chance, or Being a Victim, sin is something you can repent of. Our choices matter and can make a difference. This does not, of course, mean we can work our way back to communion with God. We can't, of ourselves, regain the life of God our First Parents lost any more than Hamlet can get out of his play and into Shakespeare's world. But it does mean that if the divine Shakespeare writes himself into our Play as a human being, endures the agony of undoing man's rebellion against God by living a perfect human life, dying a perfect human death for love of the Father, and shares that redeemed human nature with us, we can say "Yes" to the offer and goodbye to our former life of sin. This is exactly what God has done in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And this is precisely why Jesus announced his ministry with the call to repent and believe the good news.

That is where the Jubilee we are now celebrating comes in. For the Jubilee is the Church's great celebration of the moment in which that offer was first made: the Incarnation of God into this fallen Mess two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. It is the good news that Jesus Christ was raised, as we are, by a Holy Family. So don't be afraid of teaching your children (or yourself) that we are sinners. The family is the appointed theatre of operations for experiencing the human condition. And the sin we find there is the opportunity for God's grace to abound. That's good news indeed.

Copyright 2001 - Mark P. Shea