God’s family and ours

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Many preachers confess a certain trepidation at having to deliver a homily on Trinity Sunday. Thankfully for many — both preachers and congregants alike — the feast passed several weeks ago at the end of May.

For them, the mystery of the Trinity is simply far too complex to describe in understandable terms, as well as unhelpful by way of practical advice.

The Trinity was once explained to me in very simple terms by a Jesuit priest which has proven very helpful in Sunday morning religious education classes.

The Trinity, he said, is nothing more than a family of persons. A family requires that there be more than one person, since love is the basis of a family, and love is meant not only to be given, but also received. The Father loves the son and the son returns the Father’s love in a gesture so intense that the love itself that binds the two together is another person, the Spirit. The lover, the one loved, and the love that binds them together: isn’t that what a family is supposed to be?

Not only is this explanation quite practical, it also serves as a good starting point for an understanding of the Fourth Commandment, which concerns family life. While the only stated stipulation is to honor one’s father and mother, the church has always discussed the nature and general duties of family life in relationship to this commandment.

Can we say that the Blessed Trinity is the real model for familial relationships? Some express trepidation at measuring family life against the Holy Family (another Sunday feared by some preachers), never mind a comparison to the inner life of God himself! If we understand the limitations of analogy, then perhaps we can learn something of what a family can and should be through reflection on what God has taught us about himself.

In the first place, the earthly family is built upon the free consent of husband and wife, who elect to enter into a covenant of self-giving love. Trinitarian love is pure, it does not seek selfish gain but the good of the other.

Like the Trinity, the love that binds the spouses together is fruitful: it becomes the catalyst for new life. The Catechism teaches clearly that marriage, and thus the family, concerns the procreation and education of children. But the family, founded on married love, is also meant to further the good of the spouses.

By forming a covenant community of love, spouses share and foster a love for each other that is perfective of the spouses themselves. This is why all marital relationships of husbands and wives are true families, even if procreation is not possible due to infertility or advanced age.

Like the Son, who constantly described his disposition as one of obedience to the Father’s will, children must defer to their parents’ guidance and direction. Children, the product of the fruitful union of husband and wife, owe their parents respect, gratitude, obedience and assistance. In their obedience to the Fourth Commandment, children contribute to the overall harmony of the family, while in their parenting, spouses must provide for the physical and material needs of their children, and most importantly, educate them in the faith.

Our understanding of our relationship to our parents also informs our understanding of societal obligations. Just as we owe a certain deference to our parents in the society that is our family, we also owe deference to public authority in civil society. This is precisely why the church has always taught that both human and Christian society is built upon the society of the family unit. The health of the family will determine the overall health of the civil society.

In actual fact, we know that the average family life is messier than the inner life of God. Love is often accompanied in this life with wounds. People all too easily wound or are easily wounded. Even hard work keeping a family together cannot foresee all contingencies. The best parenting skills in the world are sometimes not enough to keep a child on track.

But I’d still like to think that there is something of Trinitarian love in the sick mother who gets up in the wee hours of the morning to calm an agitated infant, or in the spouse who chooses not to insist on getting his way for the good of the other, or the child who knows that it’s important to admit it when you’ve done something wrong. There might be more of the Trinity in family life than we see at first glance.

Father Joseph Upton is the assistant pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Parish and chaplain at The Prout School, both in Wakefield. This column is part of a yearlong biweekly series on the Year of Faith by Father Upton and Father Ryan Connors.