GOD'S EXTENDED FAMILY:
OUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS


"So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God." - Ephesians 2:19
Jesus Christ is the Eternal Son of God. If all paternity gets its name from God the Father, surely all sonship gets its name from God the Son.

When Christians say that Jesus is the "only-begotten Son of God", we are not denying that there are others who can be called "sons of God". We are simply stating the fact that Jesus' Sonship is unique; eternal and essential to Himself. But other persons are called "sons of God" in other senses.

In the last article we learned that the Old Testament reveals God's Fatherhood of creation, Israel, the Davidic dynasty and the fatherless. Each of these four groups - Creation, Israel, the Davidic kings and the fatherless - can be called "sons/daughters of God". And their filial relations to God are all reflections of Christ's eternal Sonship!

Creation is related to Christ because He is the Logos/Wisdom, the Eternal "Prototype" of all creation. God made all things through and for Christ (John 1:3; Colossians 1:17), Who then united creation to Himself in the Incarnation.

Israel is related to Him because the Bible makes an association between Israel and the Messiah. Hosea 11:1, a verse referring to Israel, is applied to Jesus in Matthew 2:15. The Suffering Servant of Isaiah is identified both with Israel (Isaiah 44:1-2) and with the Messiah (Isaiah 53 with Acts 8:32-33). The promised Messiah is a Son of Abraham, and so represents Israel as God's "son".

The Davidic kings are related to Christ for He is the final Son of David Who elevates David's throne into heaven and rules upon it eternally. And Jesus becomes associated with the fatherless on earth when he loses his own foster-father, Joseph.

As a result of the Incarnation and Redemption, Christians can become sharers in Jesus' own Sonship, and so become true sons and daughters of God by grace. Let us learn more about our brothers and sisters in Jesus.

The Communion of Saints

The Apostle's Creed, an early Christian statement of faith, professes a belief in "the communion of saints". This means the belief that the saints on earth (1) have fellowship not only with one another, but with the saints in heaven (Christians who have fallen asleep in Christ and passed into the joy of the Beatific Vision) and with our brothers and sisters undergoing their final purification in Purgatory, in preparation for the Beatific Vision.

Though death severs a soul from its body, it cannot sever one from the Mystical Body of Christ. Saint Paul states that nothing can separate us from Christ, not even death (Romans 8:38). He also tells us that all who are in Christ are one Body in Him "and everyone members of one another" (Romans 12:8). The Bible never states that this is only true of Christians still here on earth. Yet Scripture does indicate that when we come into the Church, "the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem", we not only have communion with God, Jesus and "the church of the firstborn enrolled in heaven" (that is, Christians on earth), but also with "myrads of angels" and with "the spirits of the just made perfect", that is, the saints in heaven (see Hebrews 12:22-24).

Christ does not have two mystical bodies - one for the saints on earth and another for the saints in heaven. Both belong to the same Mystical Body of Christ. If, as Romans 12:8 indicates, the members of that Body are all "members of one another" as well, this is a clear indication that we still have fellowship with "those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith" (2). The saints in heaven are one Body with us in Christ!

Where Are They?

Nor are they "far away" from us. Many of us were taught from childhood that God, Heaven and the saints are "up there" somewhere. We thought of heaven as a place in the clouds, we directed our prayers "upward" and perceived angels as "coming down from heaven" to help us out.

This was actually a rather crude conception of transcendence. The word "transcendent" actually means being of a distinct and higher nature; it has nothing to do with such spatial concepts as direction, distance or location. Space is part of the material realm, not the spiritual realm or Eternity.

A slightly more accurate conception of the spiritual and material realms would be as two concentric circles. The inner circle represents the material realm (the whole cosmos, including the earth) while the outer circle represents the spiritual realm. Though not perfect, this model at least shows us that heaven is right here with us, though on another plane of existence.

This is why Scripture states that Jesus' Risen Body is in heaven (Mark 16:19) and also in the Eucharist (John 6:54-56). This also explains how we are "seated in the heavenlies" with Christ (Ephesians 2:6).

Likewise, the saints to whom we pray are not "somewhere up there" far away; they surround us (Hebrews 12:1) and even constitute a heavenly congregation at our worship. The angels, too, are near us, which is how our Angel Guardians can be with us constantly (Psalm 91:11) yet still "behold the Father in heaven" (Matthew 18:10).

So our heavenly brothers and sisters are not separated from us in any way. They are still one with us in the Body of Christ, are close to us at all times, and can hear our prayers and pray for us.

No Spiritualism

Prayer to saints is not spiritualistic. Spiritualism is an attempt to contact and converse with the dead through a medium or other means at a seance, "channelling" session, or the like. Mother Church absolutely forbids her children from engaging in such activity (CCC 2116-7).

Catholic devotion to the saints is totally different. It simply consists of asking the saints in prayer (prayer is not worship, it's communication) to pray to God for and with us. We do not use occult means to contact them; it would be totally unnecessary since we are united to them in Christ. Nor do we seek a verbal response from them, as those who attend seances hope to converse with deceased loved ones.

On some very rare occasions God has allowed a saint to appear to someone on earth, but this is entirely God's initiative, not our own and not on the prompting of a medium/channeller. Church authorities carefully investigate any reports of apparitions, and if they find even a hint of spiritualism they condemn the apparition (this happened with the alleged Marian apparitions in Necedah, Wisconsin in the 1950's; the Church rejected them because the "seer" had learned spiritualism from her mother).

So Catholic devotion to saints is no more spiritualistic than asking an earthly Christian brother of sister to pray for oneself. The saints in heaven are equally united with us as those on earth.

Significance of the Communion of the Saints

If we have Christian brothers and sisters on earth, in heaven and in purgatory, how does this affect us? First of all, it shows us that we belong to a big family; we've got lots of relatives, and should stay in touch with them all. It's not too nice to snub your kin!

We stay in touch with our earthly relatives by attending church regularly. Modern Western society has become so hyper-individualistic that we even think we can do religion all on our own. "Who needs church," we hear people say, "I can pray to God at home, in the park, or wherever I am. I don't need to be in a special building to pray to God." Well, one certainly can pray anywhere, but the Bible says that we should not forsake the assembly of the faithful (Hebrews 10:25).

God is my Father, but I am not an only child; I have a Mother and lots of sisters and brothers all over the world. It is not polite to shun them all, thinking my personal relationship with God is all I need (Why would God have given us a Mother and siblings if He intends that we ignore them?). What would you think if one of your siblings (if you have any) decided that he or she could ignore you, your mother and everyone else in the family except your father? Think about it.

It's often been said that Christianity is not a "lone ranger" religion. The Church is a Body, a community, the People of God. The local parish is a microcosm of the whole Church, and when we gather with other Christians to pray, worship and/or celebrate the Eucharist we are gathering in union with the whole Church throughout the world.

If we pray alone at home, in the park or anywhere else, then that's just our own private prayer, but the Liturgy is the prayer of the Church, and of Christ Himself in the Church. When we attend Church we pray with the whole Body. There's nothing wrong with personal prayer, but why limit your spirituality to that when there's so much more?

So Mass/Divine Liturgy is a family gathering; if we attend gatherings of our earthly family, then why not those of the Family of God? Thus the communion of the saints shows us first of all that we should not stop attending church.

We stay in touch with our heavenly relatives by praying to them, celebrating their feasts and the like. The feasts of the saints are like birthdays and anniversaries in our human families. In fact, they literally are birthdays and anniversaries. A saint's feast day is usually the day he or she died, because the end of their earthly life was also their "birth" into sinless heavenly life.

The Church usually does not celebrate a saint's earthly birthday; the only exceptions are the Blessed Virgin Mary (September 8) and Saint John the Baptizer (June 24). Unlike the other saints, who became sinless at death, these two were sinless at birth; Mary was conceived without original sin, and John's original sin was done away with three months before his birth at the time of the Visitation (see Luke 1:41). So the Church celebrates their earthly birthdays, as well as their deaths (August 15 and 29 respectively).

The fact that some of our brothers and sisters are undergoing a difficult, painful process of purification before they are ready to gaze upon the Beatific Vision should stir us to compassion and concern for them. Out of love for these suffering children, Mother Church asks us to pray for them. This is one of the Spiritual Acts of Mercy: "To pray for the living and the dead". It is a very kind, loving, and quite necessary act.

Conclusion

An understanding of the Family of God clarifies a lot of questions about Catholic practice:

Of course, these reasons are cursory; more could be said about the importance of the Mass/Divine Liturgy, of Mary, etc.. Yet I hope this gives you a basic idea of how our membership in a larger spiritual family affects our behavior as Catholics.


WORKS CITED
  1. Sacred Scripture refers to Christians on earth as "saints" (Ephesians 6:18).
  2. Eucharistic Prayer I. Translation of the Order of Mass, (C) 1973 the International Committee for English in the Liturgy (ICEL).

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