In the first two articles of this series, we looked more deeply into the Old Testament and New Testament roots of the family as the domestic church. We demonstrated how, ultimately, the life of the domestic church should be a mirror for the relationship between Christ and his Church. Thus, it is fitting that the domestic church would be intimately united with the cross of Christ. In his magnanimous post-apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II talks eloquently about the relationship between Christ’s Cross and the domestic church. In particular, we will investigate the connection of sacrifice, self-giving love, and indissolubility with Christ’s own Cross.
The story of salvation history reveals God’s great love for man. Despite the numerous times when the people of Israel forsook the God of the covenant and offered pagan worship, God never completely abandoned them. Indeed, the promise of a future Savior revealed the fact that God loved his people so much that he could never allow for their total destruction. Particularly in the book of Hosea, we see how God is described as a lover, wooing his bride, Israel, back to himself: “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her…And in that day, says the Lord, you will call me, ‘My husband,’ and no longer will you call me, ‘My Baal’” (Hosea 2:14, 16). Of this great love that God reveals through the Scriptures, John Paul II writes, “This revelation reaches its definitive fullness in the gift of love which the Word of God makes to humanity in assuming a human nature, and in the sacrifice which Jesus Christ makes of Himself on the Cross for His bride, the Church” (FC, art. 13). The sacrifice of Christ is the fullness of God’s love for man, for Christ poured out everything for man, even when we were still sinners and deliberately were not following his will (Romans 5:8).
According to John Paul II, married love reminds us and points us toward this infinite Love of God. As he explains, “In this sacrifice there is entirely revealed that plan which God has imprinted on the humanity of man and woman since their creation; the marriage of baptized persons thus becomes a real symbol of that new and eternal covenant sanctioned in the blood of Christ” (FC, art. 13). This quote has two parts that need to be unpacked. First, the sacrifice of Christ takes us back to the creation of man and woman. The infinite love of the Word made flesh is the same infinite love that made man and woman, and furthermore, made them to be united in one flesh. The sacrificial love of Christ is the same love that has been poured into our hearts through our creation, and more specifically, through our baptism (Romans 5:5). Therefore, the love between married men and women will be like Christ’s own love, poured out on the Cross (John 19:34). The sacramental union of man and woman is a symbol of Christ’s sacrificial love, for the husband and wife give themselves completely to each other, promising to love each other no matter what happens. The sacrifices that a married couple must endure have great weight, from the simple things of learning to live with another person to the deeply troubling things such as infertility or burying a child. The couple is a sign of the new covenant, which means that they are a sign of Christ’s Cross because of the way that they sacrifice for each other.
Furthermore, couples are called to self-giving love. In giving themselves to each other in marriage, they are called not to hold anything back. All that a couple gives to each other is a gift, just as Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross was a perfect gift of himself. John Paul II says that Christ teaches couples to love each other completely and totally. As he goes on to explain, “Conjugal love reaches that fullness to which it is interiorly ordained, conjugal charity, which is the proper and specific way in which the spouses participate in and are called to live the very charity of Christ who gave Himself on the Cross” (FC 13). Thus, we can see that the very nature of self-giving love is to be sacrificial. A husband and wife have the very specific vocation of loving each other in a unique way; this love is reserved exclusively for the two of them. This is not just any love, but rather, charity—it is truly willing the good of another by giving oneself completely to the marriage covenant. Just as Christ gave himself totally on the Cross, so too are couples called to give themselves to each other selflessly and totally. This love extends beyond just the love of the couple. Conjugal love extends into parental love, for children are the natural fruit of the union of the couple. Therefore, just as the Cross of Christ bears spiritual fruit for souls, so too does the conjugal love of a husband and wife bear fruit for their union, namely, deep and profound love revealed in the birth of children.
The beauty of the sacramental marriage established by Christ is that it possesses an indissoluble character. John Paul II says that it is “by virtue of the sacramentality of their marriage” (FC, art. 13) that spouses are united in an indissoluble manner. How could love be both sacrificial and self-giving if it were not guaranteed by an indissoluble bond? “Spouses are therefore the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross; they are for one another and for the children witnesses to the salvation in which the sacrament makes them sharers” (FC, art. 13). Because marriage is indissoluble, the sign of their love is permanent. They dedicate their whole lives to each other through the sacrament, and they therefore remind the Church of the great love that Christ poured out on the Cross. The sacrament of marriage, according to John Paul II, is a reminder of the Cross as a “memorial, actuation, and prophecy” (FC, art. 13). It is a memorial because it points to the great works of God for man’s salvation, bearing witness to them for the whole Church, and in a particular way, for their own little domestic church. It is an actuation because marriage puts into practice the sacrificial love that Christ demands from us and reveals to us on the Cross, as we have seen in describing sacrificial and self-giving love. Finally, it is a prophecy because the couple gives an example of hope for the future coming of Christ—by practicing Christ’s love while still on earth, the couple is anticipating the future love of Heaven.
In a very practical way, we can see the relationship of Christ’s Cross to the life of the domestic church. Every family has experienced the effects of original sin; every family has experienced the loss of a loved one, the pain that comes from wounded relationships, the suffering of carrying out daily life with joy. Yet the love of Christ’s Cross is the source of the very love that the family has for its members; the truest and surest love is tested and strengthened by suffering. Thus, the domestic church is most truly and fully itself when it suffers in union with Christ’s own suffering on the Cross. If the family is to suffer with Christ, then it needs strength and nourishment to face the many trials of daily life. In the fourth and final part of this article series, we shall look at the connection between liturgy and the domestic church, showing how the liturgy strengthens the domestic church to fulfill its sacrificial vocation.