The Presence of Jesus in the Family

Joseph Sowerby FAITH Magazine May-June 2003

Introduction

Many parishes run a programme each year to prepare children to receive Jesus in the Eucharist for the first time. Such a programme tries to bring the children to a closer appreciation of the presence of Jesus, and particularly his presence in the Eucharist. What this article aims to do is to help parents to play a part in this programme of bringing their children to a better knowledge of Jesus. The title of the article is “The Presence of Jesus in the Family”, and it examines three aspects of that presence: Jesus presence in the sacrament of marriage, Jesus presence as parents take their children to church and Jesus presence in family life at home.

Ordinary families in parishes are the “place” where the Christian mystery is lived out most vividly. Anyone writing for families needs to have a tremendous respect for this fact. Living out the Christian mystery is not an easy thing to do, and family life can be affected by difficulties of many different types. It is the living through of difficult situations which really represents living the Christian mystery, just as much as the joys when things are going well. This article is illustrated by examples from the lives of families to help bring its themes to life, and to place them in their context of this every day living of the Christian mystery.

Marriage as a Sacrament

The sacramental character of marriage is expressed most clearly in St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:



“Give way to one another in obedience to Christ. Wives should regard their husbands as they regard the Lord, since as Christ is head of the Church and saves the whole body, so is a husband the head of his wife; and as the Church submits to Christ, so should wives to their husbands, in everything. Husbands should love their wives just as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her to make her holy. He made her clean by washing her in water with a form of words, so that when he took her to himself she would be glorious, with not speck or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and faultless. In the same way, husbands must love their wives as they love their own bodies; for a man to love his wife is for him to love himself. A man never hates his own body, but he feeds it and looks after it; and that is the way Christ treats the Church, because it is his body - and we are its living parts. For this reason, a man must leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one body. This mystery has many implications; but I am saying it applies to Christ and the Church. To sum up; you too, each one of you, must love his wife as he loves himself; and let every wife respect her husband.Children, be obedient to your parents in the Lord - that is your duty.”[1]

St Paul’s point is not really one about male-female roles in marriage. Its real force lies in that it is in the first instant a statement about the relationship between Christ and the Church: “This mystery has many implications; but I am saying it applies to Christ and the Church”. The relationship between husband and wife in marriage, precisely when marriage is viewed in its sacramental character, is the same as that between Christ and the Church. Living out this sacramental character asks couples to live more and more this reality of the relationship between Christ and the Church, this relationship between the One who gave himself to the very end for the Church and the Church who turns to her Lord in complete faithfulness.

Living the Theology of Family

The Italian writer and politician Igino Giordani, who was the first to establish the role of married people in the Focolare movement, wrote this in a book about his own experience of family life:
 

“If the family became aware of its sacrament and developed it….that is, if in addition to carrying out its functions in regard to birth, work, illness and care, entertainment and anxieties, it fulfilled also its sacramental role as the organ for transmitting divine life, in addition to physical life, and as copy of the household of Nazareth, so that the Father was Christ and the Mother the Church and the child was Christ-Church; if it were in the world as the representative of the Eternal, as the Church giving Christ to men and making of its fellowship a participation in the Trinitarian fellowship of God in heaven, realizing unity in trinity (father, mother, child = a single heart and a single soul), then its course on earth would be a repetition of Calvary, that is, it would bring forth redemption and resurrection”.[2]

The testimony which follows is from a Christmas letter, and is a very ordinary family witness to the reality of marriage as a sacrament. Michael is a young boy of six, with significant learning difficulties. The letter is eight pages long, and each page has a photo. Almost every sentence in the letter talks about Michael, and he appears in all eight of the photos. In the middle of the letter, Michael’s dad writes:
 

“We have been very blessed with all the professionals who have entered our lives in the last six years. Almost all of them have ‘gone the extra mile’ for Michael and we realise just how lucky we were when Michael’s heart surgery took place at just the right time and went successfully. We are sure that God is looking after us all, as he should! Many people think that children like Michael arise through accidents or because something has gone ‘wrong’ - but Michael is as he is ‘so that the glory of God may be made manifest’ and we know that many people love him very much”[3]

Taking children to Church

Children very often model the behaviour of their parents, and so it will be useful to first look at how parents can take part in the liturgical celebrations in Church before we look at how they can help their children to participate.

The Church building is a sign of the presence of God, which demands an attitude of reverence. It is this sign in two ways. As a physical building dedicated to God it is a sign to anyone who passes by that God is present in the world. And, because we see the physical stones of the Church building as a symbol of the living stones of the people who are members of the Church, it is also a sign of our presence as the Church in the world.

Edith Stein spent Holy Week and Easter Sunday in 1928 at the Benedictine monastery of Beuron. This was something she did most of her years as a lay Catholic. She went from there to the German town of Ludwigshafen where she was the lead speaker at a conference of Catholic Women teachers. At the beginning of her talk to the conference, Edith described the contrast between the peacefulness of the monastery and the busy-ness of the conference with its concern for burning contemporary issues. The contrast “was almost like dropping from heaven to earth”. [4]

Finding Our Identity in the Liturgy

Edith offers for us a vision of the Liturgy that is essentially sacred, heavenly in nature. It is about the praise that we offer to God and about the action of the Triune God on our behalf. The revised General Instruction on the Roman Missal assumes a similar understanding of the sacred nature of the Eucharistic Liturgy when, for example, it says:



“In the Mass we have the high point of the work that in Christ God accomplishes to sanctify us and the high point of the worship that the human race offers to the Father, whom we adore through Christ, the Son of God, in the Holy Spirit.”[5]

The most fundamental way in which to characterise the participation of lay people in the Liturgy is by saying that it is an expression of their existence as Christian people. If we take it away, there is nothing in their existence that is specifically and uniquely Christian. There may be many things which have a relation to Christian faith or which grow from it, but they are not things to which they can point and say, “This uniquely marks my being and living as a Christian being and living”. A reflection on the Liturgy of the Easter Vigil enables us to see this more clearly.

The Easter Vigil is the highest point at which the Church lives the Paschal Mystery from which she draws her being and life. It is a Liturgy which has a tangible sense of reliving everything that it means to be a Christian –

  • the absence of Christ from the Church before the ceremony, reflecting his death and descent into Hell
  • the new fire as symbol of new life, water as the symbol of new life in Baptism
  • the Easter candle carried in procession into a darkened Church as a sign of the Resurrection of Christ and the overcoming of death
  • the Exultet, with its hymning of the Easter mystery
  • the whole history of salvation read in the Vigil readings
  • and the eager looking towards the reading of the Resurrection account in the Gospel.

Sunday Mass, the Centre of Family Life

Everything that is of Christian faith finds an expression in this ceremony; the Christian who takes part in it finds in it a lived expression of all that they believe. In turn, they themselves express that faith through their participation.

The Sunday Eucharist lives out everything that it means to be a Christian – each Sunday is a kind of Easter Sunday all over again. The Church draws this significance of Sunday to our attention by insisting that we attend Mass on that day. We can also appreciate how our participation in the Eucharist each Sunday is an expression of our Christian life [6] .

With quite masterly understatement, the revised General Instruction on the Missal says:

“The celebration of Mass…is for the Church universal and local as well as for each of the faithful the centre of the whole Christian life.”

Belonging to the Eucharist as Laity

The Christian existence that is expressed by lay people in the Liturgy is, however, precisely an existence as lay people. This is distinct from a priestly or diaconal existence. This is not to say that lay people do not take part in the threefold office of priest, prophet and king that is the task of every Christian; but they participate in it in a lay manner. The revised General Instruction, following very closely Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, states this as follows:



“…the Eucharistic celebration belongs to the whole Body of the Church. Such a celebration manifests this same body and affects it. As to the individual members of the Body, the Eucharistic celebration touches them in different ways, according to their rank, office, and degree of participation in the Eucharist.”[7]

The participation of married people gains an additional character. Their participation is an expression of their married state precisely as a sacrament, as an imaging of the relationship between Christ and the Church. Just before we receive the Lord in the Eucharist, the priest says:

“This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.”

The second sentence has a reference to a passage from Revelation 19:9. We find there a picture of the saints in heaven gathered around the altar on which lies the Lamb of sacrifice: “Happy are those who are called to the wedding feast of the Lamb”. It presents the Eucharist as a wedding feast, as an imaging of the relationship of Christ to his Church, which is of the essence of marriage as sacrament. Where this imagery of Eucharist as marriage is most clear, is also the point at which the Eucharist is most transparently seen as a sacrament of unity. This is entirely appropriate.

Forming a Sense of the Sacred

All of this has practical consequences. The first is that the Church building should be treated as “sacred space”. This is both in terms of the physical space and in terms of the time that families spend in Church each week. It is not the place for every day conversations, for example. There is also a demand for a dignified and proper participation in the gestures and actions of the liturgy - making a good sign of the Cross, standing and kneeling properly. Parents should also work to achieve this with their children. This might mean that younger children do not bring a toy to play with, but instead are expected to be still and attentive (and I know this is much easier to say than it is to do!). It might mean that older children are expected to follow the liturgy in a Mass book, watch what is happening on the altar, join in with the responses. For all children, there is a lot of mileage in them being able to see what is happening on the altar; it has great potential for fascination, particularly on a big occasion.

Parents should not expect their children to take part in the liturgy unguided, left to themselves. With young children they might need to modify their own participation to look after them, perhaps by staying seated instead of kneeling. Older children need to see their parents taking an interest in how they are behaving. When children have just learnt to read, it might mean running a finger along the words in a Mass book as they follow what is being said.

The Sign of Peace and the Order of Familial Love

For families, the sign of peace and the invitation “Happy are those who are called to his supper”, that is, “happy are those who are called to the wedding feast of the Lamb”, is a very special moment. There are two representations of the Christ-Church relationship in the family at the sign of peace. The first is when the husband (Christ) and wife (Church) offer each other the sign of peace, and this could take place first. Then the parents can offer the sign of peace to each of their children (Christ and Church), and only after that should the children offer the sign of peace to each other. This is the point at which their Christian existence as married people is most vividly expressed. It is also a way of offering the sign of peace that communicates the primacy of a parental love for each individual child within the relationships of family life.

The point at which the Eucharistic liturgy takes on this specifically “married” character is also the point at which it is most clearly seen as a sacrament of unity. A lot of the testimonies of married life that I came across preparing this article involved moments of reconciliation between husband and wife. This is one such testimony:

“Veronique and Jean-Claude have been married for 20 years. At the moment when they decide to participate in a pilgrimage to Lourdes, their relationship is in trouble. Jean-Claude has already found a flat to buy for himself.

“I hadn’t been going to Church for 15 years, except for funerals and marriages. Before leaving for Lourdes, I had made it clear to Veronique, my wife, that she shouldn’t get her hopes up and that I would come home just as I had left. When I got to Lourdes, despite my state of mind, I was surprised by the joy that was in the air. That did not stop me from reacting angrily and violently to the teachings that I heard on the message of Lourdes. If offended me to hear: ‘ Penance, penance, penance.’ The last day, after a celebration, my wife wanted to go to pray one last time at the Grotto. I jumped at her: ‘Listen, I’ve had enough of prayers. We’re going home’. She replied: ‘Jean-Claude, for once, do this for me. Let’s go one last time to the Grotto before leaving.’ Whether I wanted to or not, I accepted. In front of the Grotto, I stayed toward the back. And then, I tried to pray. During the whole pilgrimage, I never really had succeeded. And then, all of a sudden a great light illuminated my heart. It did not take place on a visual or an intellectual level, but well and beautiful right in my heart. When we came back from the Grotto, I took Veronique’s hand saying that I felt something had changed inside me. My mistakes and my faults became apparent. It is from that moment that we began working on reconciliation, between us of course, but first with God. And since then, everything has changed in our life as a couple thanks to the sacrament of Reconciliation.” [8]

Jesus in the midst

In writing about the presence of Jesus in the lives of families at home, the phrase of St Matthew’s gospel can be used as a theme:

“Where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.” [9]

“Where two or three meet…I shall be there with them”. Are the lives at home of modern day families really a “meeting” of the people who make up the family? Do parents and children really spend time “together” as a family? Or do they spend their time in the same house, even the same room, but not really “together”? The house where the television is permanently on and in which there are no fixed meal times - is this really a house where the people of a family can “meet” in any real sense?

Anything that parents do together with their children is valuable. Sitting down at table to have meals together. Reading to children before they go to bed. Taking children to the park to play. Days out walking or at the seaside. Family celebrations. These are all ways of living the unity of family life. Within the sacrament, this unity is the image of the unity of Christ and the Church, so where parents achieve that unity they succeed in making Jesus present in the family.

A Young Person's Testimony

A testimony from a young person in Brazil shows how doing something together in this way builds unity between children and their parents:
 

“Some time ago, I had to go abroad and I needed to get a passport. And so I went to get all the necessary documents together with my mother. I was happy to go on this trip abroad and I was hoping to get everything completed quickly. My mother, however, not having had the possibility of studying, cannot read and did not therefore know what was needed and which were the forms to fill in. In the beginning I felt bad about this and I kept asking myself why my mother was not the same as other mothers.

 

“However, I found the answer within myself. The certainty that God is love allowed me to understand that I had to be happy because she is the mother that God thought for me and gave to me as a gift.

“Remembering how the Gospel suggests to us to ‘love the other as we would like to be loved’, gave me strength to completely change my attitude and not to lose hope. Instead I tried to understand what I would have wanted if I were in her place. In fact I was like her: I didn’t know what we had to do.

“I went from one office to another asking questions, and looking for help. She felt loved and, in a short time, we solved everything together. We left with joy in our hearts and with the passport in our hand!”[10]

Signs of Faith in the Home

How can parents try to live the second part of this Scripture passage: “Where two or three meet in my name…”? How do they consciously put Jesus in the midst of their family?

The first thing is to have in the house signs of Christian faith. This does not have to be anything lavish and excessive. It might mean a crucifix on the wall or mantle piece, a statue of Our Lady. It might mean a candle used to represent the presence of Christ who is the light of the world. Some families have a small altar. It might mean setting up a crib at home during the Christmas season or an Easter garden during the Easter season.

The second thing is to be explicit about putting Jesus at the centre at key moments of family life. This comes first between the parents. When they encounter difficulties or important decisions it means sitting down and, together, placing Jesus at the centre of that situation and referring their choices to him. The following testimony is from the diary of the parents of a girl called Emmy Maria, who died from a severe kidney problem when just three months old. It is in the moments of their prayer of intercession for their child that they placed Jesus at the centre of their experience:

“It was quite extraordinary what such a small child could feel and notice, and how we could tell what she felt…The last few days our child was given to live among us were hard for the human heart to bear, yet extremely great and powerful, filled with promise because of the nearness of Christ.



“It was remarkable that each time we interceded for Emmy Maria and gathered ourselves inwardly, the powers of death withdrew and she revived. Whereas before she lay there apathetic and unresponsive, with half-open eyes, shallow breath, and a very weak pulse, she would suddenly open her eyes, look at us, cry, and drink, moving her hands and turning her head when she was gently touched: she would come back to consciousness. Sometimes such a transformation came within seconds.

 

“There was a special atmosphere of love in her room. It went out from her and filled the whole house, and united us in special love to each other….”[11]

Marking Out The Day with Prayer

It means being explicit about putting Jesus at the centre at special moments of life with the children of a family. This can be as simple as saying a prayer with them before a meal or before they go to bed. It is helpful to have something that acts as a focus during times of prayer with children, particularly if you use as a focus something that is a sign of the presence of Jesus. Lighting a candle, whose light represents the light of Christ, can be a good chance to encourage a sense of the presence of Jesus in the family. During the Christmas season, an image of the infant Jesus can be used as the focus of prayer; during Easter it is possible to use a specially decorated candle as a representation of the Easter candle. In both of these cases, what is done at home will be supported by the liturgy in Church - the crib and the Easter candle are displayed in Church at these times.

Young children can access prayer more easily when it involves some form of action. Gathering around a focus is already an action prayer; asking the children to light the candle at the start and to put the candle out at the end can give them a sense of ownership of times of prayer. Holding hands in a circle or semi-circle round the candle can also be very helpful; it is a sign of the unity of the family. Children are quite capable of praying for an intention, so they can be asked to concentrate for a few moments on praying for sick relatives or for friends at school and the like. Young children cannot cope with long periods of prayer, so some of these times of prayer can be as short as one or two minutes.

"I Try to Love Jesus" - Faith in a Time of Suffering

Chiara Luce Badano died of a particularly painful form of cancer in 1990, aged just eighteen. Two days before Christmas, Chiara was taken into hospital for an emergency blood transfusion. This is how her mother tells the story of Chiara’s last Christmas. What is expressed in a very poignant way here is the spirituality of the presence of Jesus that Chiara’s family lived every day through their involvement with Focolare:



“She had prepared presents for the family and her friends. But the white blood cell count fell rapidly and her fever returned. On the telephone, her doctor asked questions urgently, and wanted to know how long it would take to reach the hospital in Turin. The ambulance was there, but Chiara did not want to go: ‘I do not want to spend Christmas in hospital,’ she said; ‘If I am going to die, Jesus, I want it to be at home’.

 

“I whispered in her ear that it was the will of God to go to the hospital. She accepted, but did not say one word during the journey, she suffered terribly. At the door of the hospital the doctors…were already waiting for the blood transfusion.

“The following day, Christmas eve, I said to her when I came in to her room: ‘Here is every one with Christmas presents in their arms, but no-one looks you in the eye, no-one says good morning. Jesus is very near and no-one sees him.’ After she had overcome a moment of difficulty, I continued: ‘Let us light the fire of Jesus among us, which warms the whole world. You must light it because my heart is giving little heat.’ She replied: ‘Let us do it together, mother’.

“That afternoon, the Archbishop of Turin visited the hospital. He noticed the look on Chiara’s face. He came in to her room and asked her: ‘You have a wonderful light in your eyes. How do you do it?’ After a moment of shyness, she replied: ‘I try to love Jesus’.

“The same day, one of the hospital volunteers was suffering a crisis of faith from seeing so many children in the hospital dying of cancer. While I went down to the bar for a drink, she sat with Chiara. I do not know what they said to each other, but this lady affirmed, having recovered all her courage, that this Christmas was the most beautiful of her life. For us, too, it was the same thing.”[12]

Conclusion: children who witness to the Lord

What a parish hopes to achieve through its first communion programme is to bring their children to a deeper love of God. In particular, the hope is that they will come to love Jesus present in the Eucharist. That closeness to Christ should then lead them to witness to him in their lives. Young children can do this in quite simple ways. The following testimonies are from young people in England. The first is from a 10 year old school girl:



“There is a girl in my class at school. I sit next to her. Everyone is always saying how annoying she is. At school she would always copy my work, and she was always punching and kicking me. I would forgive her and just say simple words like ‘that’s not very nice’ and leave it at that. One Tuesday it was choir practice. On the way in she kicked me really hard and was sent to the teacher. When she came back in she was crying. I invited her to come and stand by me and asked her if she was alright. Afterwards I talked to her and told her ‘I forgive you’. She looked really surprised and stopped crying. Every time I forgave her it made me feel good inside. She is not so bad now. She thought that she had no friends but I am her friend, so she is much happier now and that makes life much happier for everyone”.[13]

The second is from a boy 7 or 8 years old:
 

“At my school there is boy called James. Nobody likes him and everybody bullies him and makes fun of him. I know that I have to be the first to love., so I asked him to play with me and be my friend. One day he punched me in the stomach for no reason. It really hurt and I was upset and angry. For two days I couldn’t even speak to him. Then I remembered about being the first to love. On my birthday I was allowed to choose a friend to take to Legoland and I chose James. We had a good time.”[14]

In my own parish there is a very special moment of witness by children, and it comes during our “First Friday” periods of Eucharistic Adoration. I usually ask the children to bring up candles during a procession and we place them on a table at the front, with a picture or crucifix, depending on the themes of the meditations. The children then wait while we light the candles and then genuflect together in adoration of Jesus present on the altar in the Eucharist. This is done with reverence and devotion, with that “naturalness” that is typical of young children.

[1] Ephesians 5:21-6:1
[2] Igino Giordani, quoted in Edwin Robertson The Fire of Love. A Life of Igino Giordani, 216.
[3] Personal letter received Christmas 2001.
[4] Edith Stein “The Significance of Woman’s Intrinisic Value in National Life” in Essays on Woman (ICS Publications: 1987), 246.
[5] General Instruction on the Roman Missal 2000 n.16.
[6] General Instruction on the Roman Missal 2000 n.16.
[7] General Instruction on the Roman Missal 2000 n.91.
[8] A radio interview, quoted in Lourdes Magazine, February 1999, 50.
[9] Mathew 18:20
[10] Testimony of Cristiane, a young person from Brazil, taken from the website of the Focolare movement.
[11] From the diary of Emmy Maria’s parents, quoted in Johann Christoph Arnold A Little Child Shall Lead Them p.53-54.
[12] From Michel Zanzucchi Un sourire de paradis p.56-58.
[13] From CTS pamphlet The Focolare Movement pp.38-39
[14] From CTS pamphlet The Focolare Movement p.39.

Faith Magazine

May - June 2003