What is family?


Often times we have a love-hate relationship with our family. In fact, one of the biggest stresses that people have during Thanksgiving and Christmas is dealing with their family. While family can be slightly annoying at times, we need to put family under a much bigger microscope to see what a family really is.

I was in Philadelphia for the Pope’s visit for the World Meeting of Families last fall. Throughout that weekend, the theme of family was looked at on a much larger level. If there is one word that describes the theology of the Catholic Church it would be the word family. I recently began studying John Paul II Theology of the Body series for a seminar I was leading at my parish. As I began to study JP II’s masterpiece, I realized a whole new level of who God is. As St. John Paul II states:

“God in his deepest mystery is not a solitude, but a family, since he has in himself Fatherhood, Sonship and the essence of the family, which is love – the Holy Spirit.”

In God, we see Fatherhood, Sonship, and the love that flows between the Father to the Son – the Holy Spirit. In other words, if you add up the three persons of the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) you have a family. Notice John Paul II did not say that God is like a family or has characteristics of a family. He said God is a family. God is a giant, mega family. If we reflect on this mystery of God being a family, we can begin to grasp the ways God works. Since God is a family, then we can better understand how God acts with his creation in terms of family imagery.


The main way God works throughout salvation history is through covenants. As theologian Scott Hahn notes, “Viewing the history of salvation through the lens of the covenant helps us to see the fatherly wisdom and power of God, and will offer a clearer perspective on the human family.” In Biblical times covenant is read more like an exchange of lives where one party says to the other “I am yours” and the other party replies “I am yours.” A covenant is where both parties promise to give themselves to each other. Whereas Protestants typically read the covenants like a contract where God is a “just judge” in bringing His creation back to Him through judgment, Catholics read the covenants in family language where God is a Father, and God uses the covenants to bring  His children back to His family. Therefore, Catholicism asserts that God wants to adopt us into His family. Now, try to wrap your brain around that one. You are being requested to be adopted into the Holy Trinity Family (see Ephesians 1:5, 14, Galatians 4: 5-7, Romans 8:15, 1 John 3: 1-2).


Imagine if the British Royal Family wanted to adopt you into their family. Most people would be excitement and honored at this request. Also, we would gladly accept any method or way the royal family used to officially adopted us into their family. Well, being adopted into the Trinity Family is far greater than some human family. So why wouldn’t we want to explore the ways God uses to adopt us into the Holy Trinity Family? Furthermore, wouldn’t God’s ways of bringing us into His family mirror the ways we as His creation connect families here on earth? Also, if we are adopted into the Trinity family, then by definition we are going to have to participate in the family business and live similarly the life Jesus lived while on earth (see 1 John 3:9, 2 Peter 1:4, Romans 6:3, 8: 14-17, 29). And if we are to do the family business, we should expect God to give us many tools of the family to help us do His family business. First, let’s see how God adopts us into His family


When we zoom in on the covenants, we can see how God brings his creation into His family. For example, after God created mankind, we learn that he then uses a marriage covenant to connect the Trinity Family with the human family of Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:26-28, 2: 23-24 ). Now, we can see this spiritual reality on the earthly level too. Before I married my wife, we had to connect families. She was a member of the Roels family and I a member of the Jesse family. We became connected through a marriage covenant in which we pledged “I am yours” to each other in marriage. So, how do we connect families on the earthly level – through a marriage covenant.

However, in the Genesis account, we learn that Adam & Eve divorced themselves from God’s covenant and thus ushered in sin – which is the death of God’s soul in them. In order to fix this divine divorce, God uses a series of covenants (with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus) to bring mankind back to His family. So, these covenants show how a Father brings His children back into His family. Even a bird’s eye view of the New Testament reveals a plethora of family language and imagery to describe the relationship between God and His followers Firstly, God sent His Son so that we would receive divine adoption as his sons (see Gal 4:4-6, Romans 8:14-17, 1 John 3: 1-2).


Now, because human beings are not natural children of God (after the fall in Eden), it requires a new birth of the Holy Spirit for this to happen. The second birth is baptism as Jesus said to be “born again” through a saving grace of “water and spirit” (see John 3:3-8, Acts 2: 37-38, Acts 9: 18, 1 Peter 3:21). Also, this new birth is to be born in the name of God. That is why Jesus specifically declared to be born through baptism in the name of the Father, Son, Holy Spirit (see Matthew 28:19-20) This baptism happens in the family name of God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit (why we say  I baptize you in the name of Father, Son, Holy Spirit). Thus, for someone to be adopted into the Trinity Family that person needs to bear the name of God through a new birth.


Now, this makes sense to me when applied to my family on the human level. My two sons know they are my sons because when they were physically born, they simultaneously were given my family name – Jesse. Therefore, baptism is a kind of divine birth certificate when we receive a new birth into the family name (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) of the Trinity.

Then, after this adoption by baptism Christians are referred to as “children of God” (John 1:12, 1 John 3:1-2). Also, Jesus repeatedly describes His followers in family language. Jesus called those who he healed “my son” and “my daughter” (Matthew 9:2, 22). He later called all who do the will of His Father his “brothers and sisters” (Matthew 12:49-50, Mark 3:35). Additionally, Jesus taught his followers to call His Father “our Father” (Matthew 6:9). Also, Paul notes that when we conform to the image of the Son we “might be the first-born among many brethren [brothers]” (Romans 8:29, see also Hebrews 1:6, 2:17). And then early Christians referred to one another as “the brethren” (Acts 15:23) and “family of believers” (Galatians 6:10).

The Bible is loaded with family language. But as we press forward we see that this language makes clear sense on the earthly level as I instruct my children to call me father and to call each other brothers. Additionally, I also teach my children to call my bride and wife as their mother. What do we learn about the bride of Christ? As Paul helps us see that the bride of Christ is the Church (Ephesians 5: 22-25, 31-32). Also, notice how Jesus is referred to as the groom – or in ancient times as they called it the “bridegroom” (see John 3:29, Mark 2:18-19, Matthew 9: 14-16). If Jesus is a bridegroom, then this implies He has a bride. This also means that His bride would by His follower’s mother. This is why the early Christians called the Church the bride of Christ and their Mother (see Revelation 12:17, 21:2, Galatians 4:26, see Didache readings)


Now, let’s keep going to further see the family connection here on earth. What does every husband give his bride? Every husband gives his bride his body. Why does a husband give his wife his body? A husband gives his wife his body in order to give new life. We now see that Jesus gives His bride (the Church) His body to so they can receive new life. What is this new life? This new life is eternal life through the Eucharist. (see John 6: 48-58, Mt. 26:26-29).

Also, if we are adopted children of God through Jesus’ body, then we should have a place to live right? Where is that place? It is in God’s household. As Paul informs us, “you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Eph. 2:19-22, 1 Peter 4:17,). So, where is this house going to be? Well, before Jesus died He described the Jewish Temple as His house (see Luke 19:45-46, 2:49, cf: Matthew 21:13). Now, the temple was the dwelling place of God, thus God’s house. But in the New Covenant Jesus will give us a new dwelling place. The author of Hebrews helps us see that God’s has a house, and Jesus is going to be involved in that establishment of this new house (Hebrews 3:3-6, 10:21). How is Jesus going to be involved in this? John gives us a clue when he reports that Jesus told the people, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it. up” (John 2:19) Of course, John let’s us know that He spoke not of the temple of the building but the temple of His body (John 2:21). Okay, great. Where is the new house of God? It is in the place where Jesus’ body actually is – through the Eucharist in the Catholic Church. In fact, Paul tells us plainly that the Church is the household of God (1 Timothy 3:15) and that Jesus’ body is the Church (Colossians 1:18, 1:24, Ephesians 1: 22-23, Romans 12:5).

Now, think about this. God has a house. This household needs to be one house. It cannot be many households or denominations (see Ephesians 4:4-16, 2:16, 1 Corinthians 11: 17-20, Jude 19) as this would contradict one another. What would you think if a father fathered more than one household – and more than one wife? God gives us one Christ, one husband, thus one bride, thus one Church (see 2 Corinthians 11:2). Also, God’s house in the new covenant is going to contain Jesus’ body (Eucharist). And this new house with His body is going to be known as “the Church.” Does this sound like something we take for granted as Catholics?

As we add up all these verses in light of what a covenant is, we now see that family language is all over the New Testament. This is because God is trying to show us that He is a family and how He fathers His children in the form of covenants and sacraments. But let’s come back to the final question on family and add everything up to show how we can see God as a family on the earthly level. My sons know that I’m their father because they were born baring my name. Also, they live at my house, and they have my bride as their mother, but what is the final way that my sons know that I’m their father? They know I’m their father because they share my flesh and blood. Well, as Catholics we know that we are adopted sons of God because in the Eucharist we share Jesus’ actual flesh and blood. As Jesus famously said,


“I am the living bread that came down from heaven . . .and the bread in which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. . . . He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him (John 6: 51, 53-57).

Similarly, my sons having my flesh and blood in them means that I will always abide in them through our sharing of our genetic blood. This is a reality on the physical level of the body. So it is on the spiritual level of God’s soul in us.

What God is doing is masterfully stunning. Like a grand artist, he is encoding who he is and how he works within his masterpiece. God is a family, and he implants his Fatherly method into the human family so we can connect with him and understand how he operates. In Scripture, God is writing who He is and how He operates within the very method of us – the human family.

As Catholics let us embrace the family lineage we hold. We truly have a family religion where Mary is our mother in heaven. The Church is our mother on earth. God is our Father in heaven while the pope is our “papa” here on earth. The saints are our brothers and sisters and their feast days are a birthday celebration for the whole family. As one of ten kids in my family, I can attest to being a part of a big family. I know that being a part of a big family has its challenges, but the rewards of a large family far outweigh what would seem like small annoyances. So it is with the Catholic family. We are not a part of a human institution; we are a part of a divine family (see Ephesians 3: 10-16).

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