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The Cruciform Shape of the Family

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Embarking on the journey of marriage and family life is filled with many joyful moments but also with moments of suffering. This suffering is inherently relational, meaning that by entering into commitments such as marriage and parenthood, we open ourselves up to the possibility of being wounded by such commitment. For example, think of the newlyweds who ache with overwhelming love for one another, a mother who labors to meet her child, the infertile couple who longs to conceive, the parents who suffer with and for a sick child, or the elderly man who sits at his dying wife’s bedside after a lifetime shared together. As we can see, suffering takes a unique, relational shape in the context of marriage and family life. This shape reflects Christ’s suffering in the sense that he entered into relationship with mankind, therefore opening himself up to such relational wounds—wounds of love.

When we gaze upon Christ crucified, we see not only the horrific suffering of his Passion but also a sign of hope in his Resurrection. However, it is often easy to forget the joy of the resurrection in our own lives when we encounter the cross. Perhaps by more intently conforming ourselves to Christ crucified this Holy Week we will be more willing to take on the suffering that comes with family life and experience the deep, intentional joy of journeying with Christ down the Way of the Cross which leads to the Resurrection. Family life can be conformed to the paschal mystery in a way that gives it a renewed sharing in the life of Christ. In taking up a cruciform shape, the family enters more deeply into the most fundamental mysteries of the faith. Only in drawing closer to the person of Christ crucified can we be drawn into a more authentic form of community. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis reflects on the way in which abandonment with Christ in the Cross can transform our experience of suffering:

If a family is centered on Christ, he will unify and illumine its entire life. Moments of pain and difficulty will be experienced in union with the Lord’s cross, and his closeness will make it possible to surmount them. In the darkest hours of a family’s life, union with Jesus in his abandonment can help avoid a breakup. (§317)

It is not only in union with the suffering of Christ that a family becomes cruciform, but also in union with the Body of Christ. In the marriage ceremony, the couple gives their consent before the Church, which can be seen as the first act of abandonment of the newly formed family. Each person, coming freely into the union, gives himself or herself over totally to the other in the marriage bond out of love. As each spouse suffers the abandonment of their own individual good to the common good of the marriage and family, their abandonment is made new in Christ by the bestowal of sacramental grace. Unified to one another, the couple then unifies themselves to Christ through the Church. Drawing near to Christ through their vocation, married persons take up the joys and sufferings particular to their state of life. In this way marriages and families become cruciform as the daily realities of their state in life are transformed by their unity with Christ’s sacrificial love. And from this cruciform shape a beautiful spirituality can be evoked, especially through participation in the Eucharist. Pope Francis continues:

The family’s communal journey of prayer culminates by sharing together in the Eucharist, especially in the context of the Sunday rest. Jesus knocks on the door of families, to share with them the Eucharistic supper (cf. Rev 3:20). There, spouses can always seal anew the paschal covenant which united them and which ought to reflect the covenant which God sealed with mankind in the cross. The Eucharist is the sacrament of the new covenant, where Christ’s redemptive work is carried out (cf. Lk 22:20). The close bond between married life and the Eucharist thus becomes all the more clear. For the food of the Eucharist offers the spouses the strength and incentive needed to live the marriage covenant each day as a “domestic church.” (§318)

The family who embraces their particular cross can enter into a Eucharistic encounter with Christ in a deeply intimate way because familial life can form persons in the charity and hospitality needed to let Christ enter and transform their lives, homes, and relationships. The actual day-to-day strife of their state in life, as a participatory body in the Church, is thus a mode of purification. The suffering and struggles that often go along with growing to perfection are taken up by Christ and transfigured into an acceptable offering to the Father. The self-offering in the Eucharist then is two-fold as a participation in the one sacrifice of Christ and an offering up of the Church to the Father through Christ. Both forms of self-offering are accomplished in Christ as he offers his Body, the Church, and incorporates them into the one-sacrifice of the Cross.

In contemplating the Cross from the perspective of the family, we can see Christ’s sacrifice anew, perhaps even with the eyes of his mother Mary who met Christ on the Way of the Cross and stood near during his crucifixion. Like Mary’s wounded heart, the sufferings of the family can be made sweet if they become an opportunity for an encounter with Christ. Just as Christ entered so fully into the human condition as to suffer death on the Cross, the suffering of humankind is redeemed as it is conformed to the sacrifice of the Cross. The vocation to marriage and family life in the Church, understood in light of the paschal mystery, can form persons in cruciform charity which ultimately finds its expression in a Eucharistic lifestyle. Practiced in the family, this Eucharistic lifestyle requires the decentralization of the self and a communal orientation toward God. The words of the Anima Christi echo the yearnings of the soul for the type of communion with Christ found in times of suffering:

Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from Christ’s side, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O good Jesus, hear me. 
Within Thy wounds hide me. 
Suffer me not to be separated from Thee. 
From the malicious enemy defend me. 
In the hour of my death call me
And bid me come unto Thee 
That I may praise Thee with Thy saints 
and with Thy angels 
Forever and ever.
Amen.

Hidden in the wounds of Christ, may spouses and families ever cling to cruciform love and desire that their own wounds of suffering might be transformed in the hope that comes with Easter.

Featured Photo: Emile Bremmer; CC-BY-2.0.

Madeline Running

Madeline Running is a senior studying Theology and Catholic Social Tradition at the University of Notre Dame and an undergraduate fellow with the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.