Main Menu  

   

This article was published in the January 1997 issue of the Journal.

Church, Eucharist and Family

I The Church as Communion 
We are aware, especially after the Faith and Order Conference of 1993 in Santiago de Compostela, that communion (koinonia) theology is at the hcart of our forward movement toward Christian unity. The church is a communion. It is a relationship between God and Christians and among Christians. 

There is a growing emphasis today on society and family as relationship. Similarly the church is understood as a family of families. and the family as the "domestic church". The church is an institution, but the more it acts like a family, the more it will be truly Christian. 

John's first letter is a basic text on communion/koinonia: John writes so that all Christians may realise that they are one in Christ with the Father and the Son. Our fellowship with God is the basis of our fellowship with one another. In the priestly prayer of Jesus, John's Gospel speaks of this communion as the object of Jesus' prayer ''That all may be one, so that the world may believe that you sent me, and that you love them as you have loved me" (1n 17:21). 

When the church was young and small. it was the church of the home, where the eucharist was celebrated, where Christians shared stories of what Jesus said and did. The Gospels were not yet written. The hierarchical church was not yet formed into the three-fold ministry of bishop, priest and deacon. Women disciples of Jesus ministered and evangelised. 

It was easy to see the family as the domestic church and the church as the domestic family. The Jewish faith was largely a matter of the family. People gathered in the synagogue for study, to celebrate the great holidays, but they worshipped at home. There were no church buildings when the church was persecuted. It would be 200 years before the church celebrated the eucharist in the open. 

The church is a communionin grace and the Holy Spirit with Jesus Christ, Lord and Saviour, and through him with God: Father, Son and Spirit. God is not merely the immense, immutable, omnipotent creator of the universe revealed by nature and the philosophers. In Jesus we know the human face of God. We have seen God as the carpenter's son of Nazareth. Born of the Virgin Mary, and nurtured by his foster-father, Joseph, this young worker of wood became the worker of miracles in Galilee. 

The God of compassion is God with a human smile and human face, who welcomed sinners and ate with them, forgave the woman taken in adultery. wept with the widow of Nain and the sisters of Lazarus, shared the life of the poor, the wanderer and the pilgrim. He suffered, died and was raised "for us and [or our salvation". He is the risen Lord. 

The world will know that Jesus was sent and that God loves each of us as he loved Jesus because we are one, and we love one another. "Love one another as T have loved you." 

The theology of communion is rooted in the Spirit, the gift of the Father and of the risen Lord. Jesus left us so that we could experience God as Spirit; as we do so we come to understand that God is Father, "Jesus is Lord", and we have a comforter, advocate, friend in the Spirit. who dwells in us and unites us in the one body of Christ, making us temples of God, holy places where God is worshipped. 

This deep communion with God in Christ and in the Holy Spirit is the foundation of our faith, our life and our spirituality. All ecclesiology must be based on this foundation of the church as communion.

II The Eucharist and the Church 
In the context of communion/koinonia, the eucharist is the sign/symbol and sacrament of the union between Christians and their Risen Lord. It is the sacrament by which the Father continues to give life to the followers of Jesus. It is the sign by which the Holy Spirit transforms bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus so that Christians may be transformed into the Mystical Body of Christ. 

The eucharist makes the church and the church makes the eucharist.This has been repeated many times since Augustine; ever true, it succinctly expresses the relationship between eucharist and church. 

In the Orthodox understanding of the church, the church is where the eucharist is celebrated. The church. in Orthodox perspective, is not so much institution as celebration, essentially sacramental. True sacraments constitute the true church (orthodox is Greek for "true"). 

The Roman Catholic perception is more juridical and hierarchical. But we Catholics need to remember that more fundamentally the church is a relationship with Christ. It is Christ who baptises, celebrates the eucharist, forgives sins. The church does so in his name, and by the merits of his Cross. 

III The Church and the Family 
The family is the domestic church, the church of the home. Just as the family is the heart of society, so is it the heart of the church. The church is made up of families. as is society. 

The concept is a rich one that deserves our attention. At the heart of the theology of the domestic church is the idea that the church does not exist except in the family. Everyone belongs to some family. We came into the world as members of a family. There is a bond between individual and the family (even in a one-parent family). And there is a bond between each family and the church. 

The Jewish faith is more conscious of the notion of people (qahal Jahweh). The word church is synonymous with ekklesia, the called, the assembly. The church is the people of God (cf. 1 Ptr 2:9). 

The notion of the family as domestic church begins to highlight the idea that we are interconnected, interrelated, interdependent. The individualism that characterises our culture has blurred and dulled our perception of the church as a body, a people, a family. 

Pope John Paul II does not elaborate a theology of the domestic church in Familiaris Consortio, but he does more than simply use the term. In the underlying theology of the encyclical, he points a direction for this theology and how it can help us to understand better the sacrament of marriage. 

We no longer view marriage as merely a contract. The new understanding is of a covenant between two Christians in Christ. The possibility of keeping the covenant rests not on the strength of the eouple, but on the grace of Jesus Christ. 

The Spirit that binds Father and Son in unity in Trinity is the paradigm for the love of husband, wife and children in a Christian family. It is the same for the love of Christians in the church (c1'. 1 Jn 1:3). 

IV The Eucharist and the Family 
The eucharist makes the church and the family is the domestic church: and so the eucharist makes the domestic church, the family. The eucharist makes the family; this is simple logic. Why would there be a difference'? Pope John Paul explains in Familiaris Consortiothat without the eucharist the family cannot be what it is called to be: 

The eucharist is the very source of Christian marriage. The eucharistic sacrifice in fact represents Christ's covenant of love with the church, sealed with his blood on the cross. In this sacrifice of the new and eternal covenant, Christian spouses encounter the source from which their own marriage covenant flows, is interiorly structured and continuously renewed . As a representation of' Christ's sacrifice of love for the church. the eucharist is a fountain of charity. In the eucharistic gift of charity the Christian family finds the foundation and the soul of its "communion" and its "mission" By partaking in the eucharistic bread, the different members of the Christian family become one body. which reveals and shares in the wider unity of the church. Their sharing in the body of Christ that is 'given up' and in his blood that is 'shed' becomes a never-ending source of missionary and apostolic dynamism for the Christian family (#57). 

The eucharist is the model of Christian self-giving. It is the sacrifice that incorporates in the self-offering of Jesus, the gift of self that husband and wife give to each other in Christ. 

The Christian life can be described in terms of sacrifice (cf. 1 Ptr 2:5). We understand sacrifice not in the medieval terms of blood and gore, but in the post-Vatican II understanding of self-giving. Jesus gave himself for us. His whole life was a self-giving to the Father, from the incarnation to the resurrection. Today Jesus continues to make intercession for us with the Father. His prayer is the offering of his self-sacrifice, his obedience to the Father's will. 

Husband and wife must see in the eucharist the model/paradigm of marriage. By receiving the eucharist together they share deeply in the life and Spirit of Jesus, and are better able to give themselves to each other in Christ. 

The eucharist is the summit of the Christian life. We bring to the altar the gift of our lives, to be offered together with the offering of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We are not suggesting that the offering of Jesus was insufficient. Rather it is incomplete until the offering of Jesus has become our own. "I fill up in my body what is wanting to the sufferings of Jesus for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Col. 1 :24). 

Thus the image of the church as Body of Christ finds new and deeper meaning when seen in the context of St Pau1' s letter to the Ephesians, that the love of husband and wife are symbols/icons of the love of Jesus for the church (Eph. 5:23-33). 

If the church is a family and we are not to perpetuate the individualism of our culture, we need to emphasise strongly that the eucharist is not to be received in isolation. If the eucharist is a communion, the communal dimensions of this sacrament are to be given full scope. 

Thus there is more than simple convenience in Chlistian couples receiving the eucharist together (or Christian families together). This is the way it ought to be. This is the way it was in the beginning, in the domestic church. 

V The Eucharist in Interchurch Families
We have pointed out the necessity of the eucharist for Christian marriage. It would seem logical to conclude that interchurch families share the same need for the eucharist. Why would there be a difference?

If there is any difference, it is that these couples need the eucharist more than other couples. They face greater challenges, difficulties and pain. Indeed, for many, if not for most, the pain of the division of the churches is very real and acute. It affects their families daily. 

Further, interchurch couples should be seen not as the exception, but as the rule. Most churches until now have said that Christians should many in their own church.  It is quite natural for churches to say this because their selfunderstanding is that they are the church and other churches are not. The problem with that perception is that it is not truc. The church of Christ may "subsist" in our church, but it "exists" in all Christian churches. The church is not many churches. It is one church but a divided one. Interchurch couples are not the exception, they are the rule. They symbolise and exemplify the church as it is: one but divided. However, interchurch couples do more than indicate what the church of Christ is in reality, they also point the way to unity, which is love.

Let me say a little more about this aspect of love pointing the way to unity. 

Those of us who are involved in pastoral mini8tly to interchurch couples are well aware that these couples and their families are on the cutting edge of ecumenism. It has taken the churches some time to realise that, but I believe the realisation is beginning to sink in. 

The distinct contribution which interchurch families bring to the ecumenical movement is the love they have for one another. It is precisely love that will bridge the gap between the churches. It is not theology, or negotiation in dialogue, or moving juridical boundaries. It is love. 

Interchurch families show the churches how to love one another, how to bridge the gaps created by history and theology and years of estrangement. They are truly catalysts for church unity. 

Ernest Falardeau, SSS