August 2009 - Vol. 32

Salt of the Empire: The Role of the Christian Family in Evangelization,
by Mike Aquilina, continued

The Domestic Church
When we read about our ancestors in the faith, their deeds cry out for modern imitation. I will be so bold as to draw out six lessons the ancient Christian families can teach modern families.

1. Come to see your home as a domestic church. Modern Christians tend to think of their parish buildings as “the church.” We have to believe that our families are the church, that our homes are the church, and that the kingdom of God begins in the place we hang our hats and eat our meals. We need to imitate the early Christians in seeing our homes as places of worship and fellowship, as sources of charity, and as schools of virtue.

St. Augustine once addressed a gathering of fathers as “my dear fellow bishops.” That is the role that parents play in the domestic church.

2. Make your domestic church a haven of charity. One of the most striking descriptions of the early Church comes from Tertullian, who wrote: “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents, who say, ‘See those Christians, how they love one another.’” This love has to begin at home. It has to begin in the domestic church.

How many of those who decry the lack of reverence in their churches then go home to desecrate their domestic churches by harsh words toward their children or toward their spouses or by gossip about their neighbors or their co-workers? We will all be called to account for this. Remember the words of Tertullian. They will know we are Christians, not by the icons on our wall, or the fish symbols on our bumper stickers, or the grotto in our front yard, or by our WWJD bracelets, but by the love in our hearts, expressed in our homes.

3. Make your domestic church a place of prayer. This does not mean that your day has to be dominated by devotions, but you should have some regular, routine family disciplines of prayer. The early Christians saw this as necessary and so observed “stational hours” of prayer throughout the day – and even throughout the night. In the third century, Tertullian described Christian families in North Africa rising in the middle of every night to pray together.

Most Christians today do not rise at 3 a.m., and I am not suggesting we should. There are many ways to pray as a family, and you should seek out the ways that work best for your tribe. You can pray together at the beginning of the day or at the end of the day. You should pray together, at least, by offering grace at every meal. You can begin a weekly family Bible study. You can join in the weekday worship your parish church offers. The important thing is to do something, start somewhere. Begin with something small and manageable, and then give yourself time to grow into it.

Apostles of Charity
4. Know that, as a domestic church, you are “on mission.” Like the universal Church, you are sent by Christ to bring the gospel to the world. You are sent outward from your home. “Sent” is the root meaning of the word apostolate, and you and I and all our children are called to share in the Church’s apostolate, to be apostles to the world.

Imagine yourself as one of those invisible Christians living in the ancient cities that were rotting with epidemics. What would you do? What would you have your family do? Would you flee the city while your neighbors died? Would you board up the windows and position your shotgun? You would do as your ancestors did and go out and serve your neighbors.

Nowadays, we can cure many of the ancient plagues. But we should all ask ourselves: What epidemics are consuming the families in our neighborhoods today? What is it that’s tearing the neighbor families apart? What is it that leaves them scarred and barely able to go on in life? How about divorce? Illegitimacy? Abandonment . . . that constant sense that they are not wanted by someone they dearly love? Perhaps we need to expand our definitions of poverty and epidemic, in order to see the people our families must serve today. There are probably people on your block who are very lonely, elderly and alone, or mourning, or otherwise in need.

How might your family help? Sometimes helping is as simple as making meals, opening the door to your home, even sharing your children’s “artwork” for the neighbors’ refrigerators. It does not have to be a lavish program. But this sort of charity should be an ongoing family project. Christians sometimes go overboard in shielding their family from strangers and from nonbelievers. But as Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, Christ will sometimes come to us in these distressing disguises. We have to open wide the doors to Christ. That is part of what it means for us to be on mission.

One of the great Fathers of the Western Church, St. Jerome, said: “The eyes of all are turned upon you. Your house is set on a watchtower; your life fixes for others the limits of their self-control.” But our lives cannot set limits for others unless we open our lives and our homes to others – and unless (see lessons two and three) we live as if our house was set on a watchtower.

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[This article was originally published in Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, May 2004.
Copyright © 2004 the Fellowship of St. James. Used with permission.]
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