Handing on the Faith
by Mark Shea
In our family, we have a tradition. Every evening, my wife and I (sometimes one of us, sometimes both) go into the children’s bedrooms, make the sign of the cross on our kids’ foreheads and bless them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It has become a last sign of love for the day, a fixed point in a hectic, crazy and painful world. No matter how things went at school, no matter whether they were rotters or angels, no matter what, they know they will find hands extended in blessing at the end of the day. The kids have come to expect it, and to share it with their younger siblings as one of the deepest expressions of love they know. The life and love grows and spreads and puts down roots.
I often think of our family tradition when I think of the way God’s family, the Church, grows and spreads and puts down roots. For the human experience of family love is a kind of image of the love of God. God, after all, is a little like a family Himself. He is one God in three Persons. And the love between those Persons is so intense and creative that He desires nothing more than to be given away to the creatures He has made, even when those creatures have sinned against Him. We are called to be members of God’s family, even if we are black sheep.
But how? Does He hand us a Bible and say, “Read this, kid. If you can understand it well enough, I’ll see you in heaven when you die. Otherwise, tough beans. Now I’m going out of town for many years. Bye.”
No. God is not some distant Father or abstract theological concept. So far from being distant, His Spirit is, as one of the saints says, closer than water to a fish. So far from not being able to get near Him, the Psalmist exclaims rather that he can’t get away from Him even if he wanted to! (Ps 139:7-12)
But even this closeness was not enough for God. That is why the Second Person of the Trinity was born in a stable at Bethlehem. He came to us, not merely through a book, but as a man. The Word became, not just words, but flesh. And when He did, He offered us, not just words, but his hands extended in blessing just as, in our own fumbling way, my wife and I offer our hands to our children. “He stretched out his hand and touched” the leper (Matt 8:3). He touched Peter’s mother-in-law and the fever left her (Matt. 8:15). “He took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them” (Mark 10:16). And in the climactic moment of his life, he stretched out his hands-and died.
Yet the glorious truth is, He did not stay dead. “See my hands” He told His astonished disciples (Luke 24:39). It was by His hands that He showed Himself alive to Thomas (John 20:27).
Not strangely then, the Church sees its mission as “handing down” the revelation entrusted to it. Like families still do, it passes down the life given to it by its Father, not just in the family diary called the Bible, but in the family memory called Sacred Tradition: the common life, common teaching and common worship of the whole family in union with the bishops and our Holy Father the Pope. It hands down the sacraments. It collects images of its children the saints in photo albums called icons. It honors its Mother Mary. It passes on to us the full knowledge of what it means to be children of God. As St. Paul said, what he received, he also handed on (1 Cor 15:3).
In this way, Jesus makes us, by the Holy Spirit, “participants in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), agents of His grace and power, and “members of the family,” not so much by handing us a book as by handing us Himself. And He calls us as Catholic fathers to participate in His work in a crucial and irreplaceable way. For we are called to be like our heavenly Father and “hand” Christ to our children, not just with words, but by our example, by our love for our wives, by our prayer for and with our families, by our teaching them of and exposing them to the sacraments, by teaching the doctrines and living the life of the Church, by upright conduct at home and at work, and by our care for the poor and marginalized. In so doing, we hand our families our very lives, just as Christ handed us his.
For as St. Teresa of Avila said long ago, “Christ has no hands on earth now but yours.”