This is the second of four weekly installments on the Spirituality of the Domestic Church. See the first here.
In the first part of this article series, we looked at the Old Testament roots of the family as the domestic church. These, however, are only a foreshadowing of what would come in the time of Christ. Christ came to renew all things and to free man from slavery to his sin, for Moses had only established the ceremonial law as a pedagogue, or teacher, for the people of Israel (Galatians 3:24, RSV). Now, in the time of Christ, the old ceremonial law is no longer necessary, for Christ himself imparts the grace necessary to follow the divine commands. We see this in a particular way with marriage, which Christ raises from the natural order to the level of a sacrament. Thus, in the New Testament, we are given the full understanding of what it means for the family to be a domestic church.
One of the pivotal passages about marriage in the New Testament occurs in the Gospel of Matthew, when the Pharisees attempted to confuse Christ with a question about divorce. Under the old law, an Israelite man was allowed to divorce his wife, if she should be unclean or be indecent (Deuteronomy 24:1-3). The Pharisees wanted to see what Christ will do: will he reaffirm this law concerning divorce, or will he give a new law? Christ, in fact, takes the Pharisees back to the beginning of creation, when God made man both male and female, and blessed them in marriage, saying that “the two shall become one” (Matthew 19:5). Because the two have been joined in one flesh in marriage, Christ goes on to say, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6). In other words, marriage from the beginning was not designed to be broken: God intended that the couple would remain with each other for the whole of their life, until one of the spouses dies. Marriage, therefore, is indissoluble, because it is a covenant established by the consent of the partners and ratified in the sight of God.
The Pharisees pushed Jesus even further: why did Moses allow for divorce, if God did not intend for it to be that way from the beginning? (Matthew 19:7). Christ may have surprised them with his response: “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8). Christ once again affirms that God did not intend for divorce; God intended marriage to last for the whole of a couple’s life. However, the Israelites, as is clear from their story of salvation, were unwilling to devote themselves entirely to God’s laws—starting all the way back with our first parents, Adam and Eve. Therefore, the Israelites needed to be taught by God how to follow his commands. With the coming of Christ, however, God’s people now have full access to his grace in order to fulfill the laws—this is St. Paul’s meaning when he says, “The written code [the law] kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). Without Christ, the law leads to death, but with Christ, we are given the appropriate graces to fulfill the law. Specifically in marriage, divorce leads to the death of the union, but with Christ, the couple has the necessary graces to fulfill the demands of the now-sacramental union.
Christ has re-established the indissoluble character of marriage, thus elevating it to the level of a sacrament. What is the vision or model for this sacrament? In Ephesians 5:21-33, we find the ultimate model for what the domestic church should be. The relationship of the husband and wife is compared to the relationship that Christ has with his Church. Just as Israel was the bride of the Lord (Hosea 2:14-20), so too is the Church—born from the side of Christ—his very own bride. St. Paul says that wives are to be subject to their husbands, “for the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (Ephesians 5:23). Far from being a chauvinist understanding of the relationship between men and women, we can see that St. Paul’s view is primarily Christocentric. Just as Christ loves his Church with an infinite love, even until death, and guides her along the ways of truth, so too ought a husband die to himself entirely for his bride, and bring her closer to Christ himself. Similarly, just as the Church gives everything to her beloved, Christ, so too is the wife meant to pour out everything for her husband. St. Paul explains that it is “for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become on flesh” (Ephesians 5:31). This “great mystery” (Ephesians 5:32) is the mystery of how the relationship of the husband and wife is like the relationship of Christ to his Church.
Thus, through the graces poured out in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, a couple is meant to be an image of the universal Church herself. When we see a couple living out their married life, we should see an image of Christ’s love for his Church. Just as Christ “gave himself up for her [his Church]” (Ephesians 5:25), so too should the husband give himself up for his wife—and the wife is similarly called to make sacrifices for her husband, the head of the family. This could be as simple as washing the dishes, changing a diaper, or cleaning the bathroom. All of these sacrifices are meant to be a mirror of Christ’s sacrifice for his Church. Thus, the domestic church has its own vocation of living out married life within the life of the Church. The couple points beyond themselves to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross when they willingly accept the difficulties that are given to them.
The life of the domestic church, we should bear in mind, is only an image of the eternal wedding with Christ in Heaven. Thus, the married couple should always be anticipating Heaven in their lives. Their marriage should point forward to the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-9), when all will be one in him (Ephesians 4:6). This is why some forego the married life, which was essentially unthinkable before the time of Christ. Some willingly give up the natural good of marriage for a supernatural vocation—that of marriage with Christ—while we are still on this earth. As the tradition has always taught, the vocation of celibacy is the higher calling, yet at the same time, these two vocations of celibacy and marriage support each other. The family as the domestic church is meant to be an image of Christ’s love for his Church here on earth; the consecrated person, however, is living in that very marriage with Christ that will ultimately be experienced in Heaven.
Having reviewed the important New Testament passages of the family as the domestic church, we will turn in the third part to the relationship of the domestic church and the Cross of Christ. We shall dive more deeply into how the couple and the children from their union are intimately united with Christ’s Cross, through the graces of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony.