Strengthening the Family through the Word and the Eucharist

By the Most Rev. Pablo Virgilio S. David, D.D.
(Talk during the 21st National Bible Workshop,  Feb 23-27, 2016, Marbel, South Cotabato)



A few days ago I was invited by the CFC to share some thoughts on their theme: “It takes a community to build a family.” The theme is obviously inspired by that famous African saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” which Hillary Clinton used as title for a book she published several years ago.

I started my reflection with a not-so-well-known song by Burt Bacharach, which was one of his compositions for the movie “The Lost Horizon”. The song says, “Start with a man and you have one; add on a woman and then you have two. Add on a child and what have you got? You’ve got more than three; you have what they call a family.” The song is entitled “Living Together”; and I quoted it mainly to call attention to its simple, or rather simplistic thesis on building family. Yes, perhaps within the utopian circumstances of a dream world called Shang-ri-la all it takes is to get a man and a woman to live together and have a child in order to build a family. It is unfortunately not as simple as that anymore in our so-called “modern” or even “post-modern” societies. We know full well how many men and women have brought forth children into this world and have not become family.

In the context of modern societies that are strongly oriented towards the values of human autonomy and individualism, the sense of community is not as valued anymore; it is also not that easy to build a healthy family. If it takes a wholesome family to raise a healthy child; it also takes a wholesome community to be able to raise a healthy family that will raise a healthy child. That sense of community is what is rapidly eroding in the context of today’s modern societies.


Then and Now: The Family in the Context of Modernity

I was raised in a home that was very communitarian in its orientation. We did not have single bedrooms, obviously because we were thirteen children, born of the same parents consisting of a breadwinning father and his fulltime wife, both doing full time parenting. We grew up with meagre means, making the most of public education augmented by a lot of tutoring from my mother. We did not have house helps; we took turns doing the household chores.

We had only three private rooms: our parents’, the boy’s room and the girls’ room. Only our parents had a bed and full privacy. Our rooms were really our dressing rooms with closets and chests for clothes and beddings. We slept on the floor in a large living room on mats with mosquito nets; and we had our own system of segregation for adult boys and adult girls and kids. But we always ate together, played together, prayed the rosary together and had many opportunities to bond together as a family.

During few times that we had family trips to Manila; we went (not to malls but) to Luneta park, or to Manila zoo, or we made a pilgrimage to Antipolo. We had no cell phones, no computers, no cable TV, not even an ordinary TV because our parents could not afford it. They’d rather spend for our schooling. Our parents told us stories and expected us to tell stories to one another. Family for us did not just mean my parents and my siblings. We had our grandparents nearby as well, our cousins, distant relatives, neighbors and family friends who were very much a part of our lives, and whom we interacted with on many, many occasions: births, anniversaries, fiestas, holidays, deaths, marriages, etc.

Contrast that now with the modern template of the family in the age of digital technology. Much like the templates projected in movies and TV sitcoms, the present notion of family has become limited to the nuclear family (husband and wife both doing the breadwinning, and their children—at most two or three in the urban setting—living in constricted apartments & condominiums in the busy metropolis.)

Apart from very occasional reunions and opportunities for homecoming in their native towns and provinces, they tend to be cut off from the rest of the clan, and the typical barangay neighbourhoods the earlier generation grew up in. Picture a modern “family” whose members have private bedrooms and having very limited contact with each other. Imagine both parents working, and relying on house helps.

Picture the family members grabbing their ready-made meals from the refrigerator, heating it in a microwave oven and eating it alone. Or picture them eating together, but with the television turned on and getting their attention from each other. Picture them “bonding” on a weekend in a restaurant, eating together but not conversing with each other, busy with their smart phones, hardly paying any attention to each other.

Digital technology may have brought a lot of blessings to modern men and women. But it is also causing the death of conversation, which in turn is killing the sense of family by killing the sense of community. Picture the more extreme expressions of post-modern societies where genders, roles, and interpersonal dynamics are now totally left to the individual’s free choice.

The underlying principle that governs human behaviour is, “No one has the right to tell me who I want to be family with; whom I choose as sexual partner; whom I choose to be affectionate to and be family with—my FB friend, my pet dog or cat, my computer, myself.” Family is who I “feel like” being and living with.

Responsibility is a matter of choice; only I can determine who and what I want to be responsible for. No one has the right to question my individual pleasures as long as I don’t hurt anybody. As a free and autonomous individual, I can choose to have worry-free and pleasurable sex by using contraceptives; I can enter into a marriage at will and terminate it when it doesn’t seem to work out well.

A woman has a right to her body; so she also has a right to terminate a pregnancy when she doesn’t feel ready and disposed for it. Even compassion is now redefined. It is now understood to be an act of kindness to terminate a life rather than allow it to be born abnormal, to grow up in poverty, to suffer from a disability, terminal illness and old age, and misery. (A few years ago, I chanced upon a book in a shelf in the National Bookstore by a certain Derek Humphrey, on assisted suicide.)


Biblical Analogies for the Family in Crisis

Most of the models of development designed for today’s modern societies are what I am inclined to call the new versions of the Biblical Tower of Babel. In the primeval stories in Genesis, the sin that destroys humankind’s kinship with God leads to the even more serious sins that follow: Cain’s murder of his brother (Gen 4), the human hubris that leads to the nemesis of the Great Flood (Gen 6-9), and the symbolic tower of human arrogance and impulse to play God which leads to conflicted situations that prevent them from being able to communicate meaningfully with one another, and lead to the dispersion of humankind into “many languages” (Gen 11).

As in Babel, the structures built by modern societies are sky-scrapers. They build spaceships that soar up to explore the outer space. They invent sophisticated means of communication that ironically destroy the human capacity to communicate with each other. They exploit natural resources in utter disregard for the next generations. They don’t mind zero birth rates because they can exploit cheap migrant labor anyway in order to maintain their profligate lifestyles. Human trafficking and migrant labor are the new forms of slavery.

The Bible tells us how Israel began as a family with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his children. It narrates how this family was threatened by many factors, both external (like famine and war), and internal (like conflicts, such as sibling rivalry), and how it survives all odds and grows into a nation, by Yahweh’s blessing.

There are common motifs that recur constantly in the narratives of the Patriarchs. All of them get married to infertile women who, in turn, eventually get vindicated. There is sibling rivalry among their sons; the younger sons are usually favored. They all go down to Egypt due to circumstances. The same blessing motif occurs in all three of them: blessings that would strengthen them as a family such as land and posterity. Yahweh says to them: “I will bless those who bless you…by you all the nations on earth shall be blessed.”

In short, they are blessed so that all the nations on earth shall be blessed. How? They will become part of God’s family. To be family with God: this is the vision-mission of Israel, to be a covenant-people. This covenanting is symbolically ritualized by the blood of animals offered as holocaust. Half of the blood is poured on the altar, half is sprinkled on the people, suggesting something of a blood compact. It means—they’re family, not just with each other but with God. If Israel wants to keep together as a family, they have to let God be part of their family. One might see in this an ancient version of the slogan “The family that prays together stays together.”


The Word of God as Covenant Bond

The covenant relationship between Yahweh and Israel is symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the stone tablets of the ten commandments. These commandments which sum up the Torah are, in essence, family regulations. They are Israel’s keys to a strong family; one God, consecrated Sabbath, respect for parents, no murder, no adultery, no stealing, no false witnessing, no coveting of spouse or property, etc. They are the shared rules whose observance was most essential for building the kind of community that could strengthen the family, rules that could keep them together. In the Gospels, Jesus would sum up these family rules into two basic commandments: “Love of God above all,” and “Love of Neighbour as Oneself”—bringing together the Great Shema of Deut. 6 and the love of neighbour clause of Lev. 19.

It is obvious that Lev 19 understands “love of neighbour” as love of a “fellow Israelite”—meaning one’s next of kin. To treat another as oneself, as one’s own family—with care, respect, compassion, love, that is what the commandment means. The lawyer’s rejoinder, “Who is my neighbour?” in Luke 10 becomes the very occasion for Jesus to narrate the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

This famous parable is precisely a critique of the narrow-minded and exclusivist definition of “neighbour”, which goes against the very grain of the Torah, even if it is to some extent correct to say Lev. 19’s “love of neighbour” clause is really about one’s fellow-Israelite. The parable’s issue about extending one’s love to the non-family is there too in Lev. 19. And it is precisely the main point in Jesus commentary, as insinuated by the parable. The love of neighbour clause is not meant to be used as basis for excluding the non-Israelite, alien, or the stranger from Israel’s care.

In fact, the text of Leviticus reminds Israel that they were once strangers (i.e., migrants, refugees) themselves. Thus they were expected to be compassionate to aliens as well. The author reminds Israel never to forget who they were, why they had been chosen, why Yahweh had compassion on them. It was not because they deserved it, or that they were the greatest but rather because were the least and Yahweh had pity on them. I call this the Deuteronomic version of Pope Francis’ motto miserando atque eligendo.

This Deuteronomic provision for a more inclusive sense of “neighbour” is actually the result of the experience of exile for Israel. It was on account of the experience dispersion that Israel learned to live with strangers and to start seeing them as part of the equation of salvation. That they are God’s children too!  In a state of dispersion, the Jews rebuilt their lives by congregating around the written Word.

In the absence of a temple (which had been destroyed by the Babylonians), what they built were synagogues, to allow their lives to be nourished by God’s Word, to be able to rebuild their families. Their desert experience in exile had made them discover the most important key to being family: God’s Word! If they wanted to live long in the Promised Land upon their return, they were to allow their lives to be nourished by the Word. Deut 8: “He fed you with manna in the desert, a food unknown to your ancestors, in order to make it clear to you that not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes from God…”


The Eucharist: the New Covenant Bond in Jesus’ Blood

And yet, somehow, the Word was not enough to keep them united with one another in a bond of communion. They still felt the need to ritualize their bond with Yahweh by blood through the yearly ritual sacrifice of Passover. They had indeed lost their temple but they still kept the ritual sacrifice of the paschal lamb: to recall their kinship with Yahweh. Because this kinship is broken regularly by sin and infidelity, it cannot be kept firm by the blood of animals.

It is God who takes the initiative in these last times by offering, not the blood of animals but his own blood in the paschal mystery, a mystery we celebrate and re-enact constantly in the Eucharist. Jesus himself has become our covenant, already through his incarnation. Paul in Col 1 tells us: “through him all things are reconciled, both on earth and in heaven, making peace by his blood.”

The Eucharist is Jesus’ sacrifice of self-giving on the cross, left as a memorial for us to remember in order to keep ourselves bonded in communion with one another and with God. The bond becomes Jesus himself, the Word made flesh: his own body and blood, no longer the blood of bulls and calves, as so beautifully articulated by the writer of the letter to the Hebrews.

We are to do likewise, in memory of him: i.e., be united in his self-offering. He is the priest and victim; the offerer and offering. This self-giving act of unconditional love is what truly strengthens and unites us, and makes us grow from human families to holy families, God’s family. It is what we celebrate in our Sunday gatherings when we break bread in memory of Him; we memorialize Christ’s self-oblation. The ritual sacrifice becomes a sign and an instrument, a sacrament that actualizes Christ’s life-giving death on the cross, and which in turn becomes our new and eternal covenant bond with God.

This is all brought to light in a most unique way in John 6, where Jesus, after feeding the multitude with the five loaves and two fish teaches them to seek the more essential kind of food: the Bread of Life. Then he proceeds to explain that this Bread of Life is none other than His very self. He says, “Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink of his blood, you have no life in you.”

I wonder if you’ve ever tried reading this to children found yourselves at a loss on how to explain it to them. If the disciples themselves found the very thought of it gross and morbid, how much more children who are made to hear this at the Liturgy for their First Communion!

What I do is I usually talk to the mothers first, asking them what they feel when they prepare food for their children and their children refuse to eat it and look for something else. Then I address the children and try to explain to them how painful it is for parents when their children reject or even trivialize what they’ve worked hard for. I explain to them that when they become adults and have their own children, they are bound to discover how hard life is.

It is only then that they would discover that the food that their parents had fed them with was not just rice and viand but their own blood, sweat and tears. I tell them there is no other reason why their parents did so but love. I tell them that people who love unconditionally do not mind giving of themselves until it hurts, until nothing is left of them. I tell them that it is what Jesus did for us on the cross and what he taught their parents to do, and what we all must learn to do if we receive Christ; and that in receiving Christ we also must change and grow and become like him.

In the Eucharist, the Word that we receive becomes complete. It takes flesh in the Lord whom we receive, and who in turn takes flesh in us who receive him, keeping us in communion not just with one another but with God. It is through the Eucharist that we truly become a community that builds our human families into God’s family. It is in the Eucharist that God’s promise to Abraham finds its fulfillment: we are blessed to be part of God’s family, and in thanksgiving (Eucharistia) we become a blessing to others, to the rest of the world whom God also calls to enter into his family.