Another set of images of the Church is drawn from family. As with other images, only more so here, there are strengths and weaknesses. Most important, they bring to remembrance our families of origin. If our family experiences are, on balance, good, then the images reinforce that, but if the experiences are seriously bad, then the images become stumbling blocks. These can be at least as hard to overcome as the stumbling blocks parents and/or siblings have put before us, especially in our earliest years. If the latter is the case, we need to remember that healing was a major ministry on the part of Jesus and healing familial brokenness continues to be part of that.
The Fatherhood of God is an important familial image in Christian spirituality as the Lord’s Prayer reminds us every time we say it. But it is important to remember that God is addressed as “Father” (better yet: Papa) by Jesus before God is addressed that way by us. Jesus is alerting us to the paternal care given all of us by God, but God’s paternity comes to us through Jesus. At the Annunciation, the Heavenly Father, who already has begotten the Son from all Eternity, begets the human child in Mary’s womb. As a conscious human, Jesus experienced the love of his Heavenly Father most strongly when he was baptized in the Jordan by John. The voice from Heaven said: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This pre-emptive love of the child is fatherhood at its best. It is like the happy parent who is overjoyed with the birth of a child simply because the child is. It is this pre-emptive Love that is the Foundation of the Church, the rock on which the Church is built.
The image of Mother, Jesus’ earthly mother, has often been used as an image for the Church. As a particular flesh-and-blood mother she is Mother Church without being an abstraction. That she would nourish the baby Jesus from her own body makes her a perfect image of nurturing. When confronted with the mysteries surrounding Jesus’ birth, she pondered them in her heart. Little else is told us about her from Scripture but she stood by Jesus at the cross, making her the archetype of many more grieving mothers whose sons have been treated the way her son was. The nurturing we receive from our mothers has a lot to do with having a basic sense of security that helps us resist rivalrous mimetic desire as we grow up. Failures in early nurturing create basic insecurities that are difficult to overcome. The Church as a whole is called to delight in every child and to nurture every child during maturation.
Important as these paternal and maternal relationships are, they belong to Jesus first and to the rest of us secondarily. That is to say, Jesus relates to us as our brother and we are all Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Considering the history of sibling rivalry in scripture, this is of immense significance. Jesus is the keeper of his brother that Abel never had and he is Cain’s keeper as well. In her book Intimate Domain, Martha Reineke discusses the tension and fundamental choice a child is faced with when a sibling is born: whether to compete or to welcome the sibling as “more of me” rather than less. There is no competing with Jesus over mama or papa so we might as well be civil brothers and sisters with him and with each other in the bargain.
There is a curious story in the Gospels that hint of possible tensions even in the Holy Family. Jesus is told that his mother and brothers and sisters are outside wanting to speak to him. Jesus points to the people who are listening to him and says that they are his mother and brothers and sisters. This indicates that even during his lifetime, Jesus is building a kinship network based not on bloodlines but on obedience to God’s Desire. There are people from broken families who find family through the Church. (Here I mean Church in the broadest sense! Where this nurturing takes place, there is Church, when it doesn’t, there is no church.) Building deep kinship ties through Jesus happens when we allow Jesus to bring us into the arms of his Mother and the Presence of the Heavenly Father who is so well-pleased with us that our hearts melt and we really want to be pleasing to our brothers and sisters.