The family as a domestic church


In the Holy Gospel there are many parables, miracles and events which we ordinary people very frequently understand only superficially and, not dwelling for very long on them, tend to pass over them in anticipation of the "key" parts of the Gospel and Christ's "most important" miracles and sermons. There are many times when we consider that we already know all about a certain sequence in the New Testament and we neither pause to reflect on it, nor ask our priest or spiritual father for additional explanations. The fact is, however, that there are no "main" or "side" events in the Holy Gospel, no "greater" or "lesser" miracles; on the contrary, everything is equally important, every event has its place and each word its significance. Christ never acted or spoke casually, His every action and word being undertaken for our salvation.

            One of the frequently overlooked events in the Gospel is the miracle in Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11), the first in a series of miracles that Christ worked when He began His mission of salvation on earth. It is not without significance that for His first public work of salvation, the Savior chose this modest Galilean home in which two young people were united in Holy Matrimony and were starting a family. By His very presence at the wedding and His first miracle worked among men, He established the family as the first step in evangelization and the Christian home as the starting point for our journey towards the knowledge of God, our deification and our salvation. Indeed, the homes which the Saviour and his Apostles entered and sanctified by their presence became small hearths from which the fire of the Gospel began to spread slowly, but irresistibly, throughout the world.

            A great mystery is concealed in this apparently simple Gospel story: Jesus, His Most Holy Mother and disciples are invited to a wedding in Cana of Galilee. When the hosts had run out of wine, Jesus orders the servants to fill the water pots with water and take them to the master of the feast. And the master of the feast, having tasted the water that was made wine, says to the groom: "Every man at the beginning sets out the good wine, and when the guests have well drunk, then the inferior. You have kept the good wine until now." By His presence at the wedding, Christ blesses and sanctifies marriage and family, and by transforming the water into wine, He teaches us that the way of the married life is really the way of transforming the life of individuals who are united in Holy Matrimony: both man and woman in the Christian marriage are called, by their free will, through love and sacrifice, to transfigure their biological and natural, individualistic type of existence into the married or ecclesiastical type of existence, which is a union according to the semblance of the life of the Holy Trinity. Thus, marriage is a Holy Mystery established by God.

            Unfortunately, influenced by the worldly and unholy atmosphere of today's society, marriage is understood in a natural, biological or socio-economic context. The huge number of divorces speak for themselves: marriage, and consequently, the family, is in a great crisis. A significant cause of this crisis lies in the fact that “Christians” embarking upon the journey of married life do not wish to live and experience marriage as a Holy Mystery, but rather as a legalistic or social institution in which each of the partners has, above anything else, his or her rights. A marriage conceived in such a way stands on a very feeble foundation. It is therefore quite understandable why many such marriages fall apart, or exist in name only, through a mutual agreement, not encountering any joy or fullness of family life whatsoever.

            The Christian marriage, on the other hand, is something much higher and nobler than mere legalized co-habitation and physical love and attraction, or a social phenomenon. As it is possible in any plane of life or any type of human relationship, if we very carefully open our spiritual eyes, to discern God's presence, the architype of the Holy Trinity or the reflection of Christ's Church, so it is with the very essence of the Christian family: in it we see the image of the Holy Trinity and the Church itself. The Holy Apostle Paul begins some of his epistles with greetings such as: "Greet Priscilla and Aquila…and the church that is their house"(Rom.16:3-5); "To Philemon, our beloved friend …and to the church in your house" (Philem. 2). The family is, indeed, a home church, a small church. This idea is manifested visibly, through morning, evening, mealtime, or before-school prayers of the family members, or when the family is celebrating their Patron Saint Day, the Serbian Slava. There, gathered around the icon of the saint whose glorification they are celebrating, with a lighted candle and vigil lamp, with the zhito and the kolach, in a visible manner the family reflects a community in Christ, God's Church. This image of the Church within the family shows forth invisibly as well: through the everyday podvig of married life, through mutual understanding, longsuffering and maturing in the faith and through the priestly duty of raising children. The love between partners in marriage must not be reduced to mere attraction and a physical relationship: rather, it is the means by which their growing together "to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Ephes. 4:13) occurs. The love of parents toward their children is not only care for their material well-being, for their physical upbringing and education (although all of this is necessary): parental love culminates when the mother and the father strive and do everything they can to illumine their children with the light of Christ, patiently and unforcefully, in accordance with the talent which was given to them by God.

            The Christian family, then, is made up in, the first place, of the husband and the wife bound together in Holy Matrimony blessed by the Church. The Apostle Paul, in his Epistle to the Ephesians sends a clear message to married couples: "Husbands, love your wives , just as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for her", and "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord"(Eph 5:22,25). These words of the Apostle are frequently misunderstood by men and particularly by women, as though hinting at the subservient position of the woman within the marriage. However, their true meaning is that marriage is a union of two people who have different, though equally important roles and responsibilities in this union. Each of the partners strives, together with his or her companion and in a God-determined way, towards the same goal: salvation through Christ. And on this ascetic journey the Holy Spirit is the power which inspires and imbues them. This is precisely where we discern the image of the Holy Trinity reflected in the family.

            Children are certainly not the goal of a Christian marriage, but through bearing and raising them, the marriage receives a certain fullness. Through childbearing the marital union, the small Church, is given an almost Divine image, for it becomes the union of three or more persons. A new way of overcoming one's egoism is revealed, as well as the possibility of two people sacrificing together for a third, and this mutual sacrifice of the parents gives a new kind of strength to their existing love. The responsibility and the work of a parent is truly a type of lay priesthood. Just as spiritual birth within the of the Church is the fruit of pastoral love, so too are parents (along with kumovi and spiritual fathers and mothers) responsible not only for giving physical life to their children, but also to bear them spiritually in Christ’s small Church, the Christian family, that they may all bear fruit. Direction in the faith, the teaching of prayer, guidance in acquiring virtues and love for both God and one’s neighbor, all in the midst of many and difficult temptations which beckon and entice (school, work, material culure, etc.), can only result in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit by the grace of God.

            As a divinely established cell of Christian life, the individual Christian family is inseparable from a larger community - the Church and the parish, and the Holy Mysteries that are present in it. The family is an organic part of the Church and without it, without  life in the parish, a Christian family cannot exist. Therefore, it is necessary for the family, besides gathering for prayers in the home, to gather in and around the parish church, so that they may, together with other Christian families and individuals, and through receiving the Holy Mysteries, in particular the Holy Eucharist, attain true togetherness - communion in Christ.

            It is certainly not an easy task, especially in today's world, to create and nurture family relationships in such a way that they reflect Christ's Church. The temptations are great, the paths leading to dead-ends numerous, and the world cruel in its demands. Living a Christian life is a podvig in its own way for all the members of the family. But the rewards are many and great, even in this life: who has not felt quiet joy and inner peace and consolation after a long and stressful day at work, after hours of dealing with worldly affairs and sometimes pointless discussions, amidst the deafening noise and bustle of the city, after getting through the rush hour, walking into his home and seeing the familiar faces of his loved ones, the quiet light of the vigil lamp in front of the icons and the comforting image of the saints, as members of our household, depicted on them? Who has not felt God's grace upon returning home from a long journey, welcomed with joy by his spouse and children, and sitting down with them for a meal sanctified by prayer? Whose heart does not leap for joy at the baptism of his child, at the first time it partakes of the Holy Mysteries, the first time it awkwardly makes the sign of the cross, the first time it says "Our Father" by itself? Which parent has not given praise to the Lord when his child consciously chooses virtue over vice, when it chooses the narrow path instead of the wide one, or when it enters a Christian marriage and starts a family of his own?

            O Lord Jesus Christ, who transformed water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee and who has, By Your presence blessed marriage, bless our families too, sanctify our homes and illumine and transform us that we may together, through You, find the way to Life Eternal.

Ana Smiljanic