“Once a person learns to read the signs of love and thus to believe it, love leads him into the open field wherein he himself can love. If the prodigal son had not believed that the father’s love was already waiting for him, he would not have been able to make the journey home – even if his father’s love welcomes him in a way he never would have dreamed of. The decisive thing is that the sinner has heard of a love that could be, and really is, there for him; he is not the one who has to bring himself into line with God; God has always already seen in him, the loveless sinner, a beloved child and has looked upon him and conferred dignity upon him in the light of this love.”― Hans Urs von Balthasar
I came across this quote the other day while doing reading for a class I will teach this Fall, and it made me recall a family I knew in Connecticut (when I was studying at the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies) that took in foster children. The dad and I once talked over lunch about what that was like to foster parent, and the challenges it presented for his own children and for his wife; as well as the remarkable signs of transformation he had witnessed in the children they would take in. Each foster child, he said, had behind them a story of hardship, pain, rejection and loss, and many had developed harmful ways of self-protecting. He said, as I recall:
Sometimes the children proved to be so resistant and mistrusting that there was not much we could do to help them grow. They had hardened so much and knew only how to deceive and manipulate to get what they wanted. But most were receptive at some level. They wanted a family. It was a beauty to behold, once they knew they could trust, how they would open up. Like very tightly closed flowers that slowly unfold. The power of unconditional love allows a person a safe space to come out and discover the goodness in them and in life. I always think of the new children we would receive as hermit crabs that only very cautiously come out of their shell; and are easily frightened back in. You knew you’d gotten through to them when they would laugh and play with us, or — my favorite — fall asleep in my wife’s lap. When you know love is free, you can finally be human. When you know it has a price, is conditional or involves a ruse or threatens betrayal, you lose your sense of humanity.
I was in awe.
This made me think of sociologist Rodney Stark’s analysis of the rise of Christianity in the first century. He argues that the primary power of the Christian movement to attract new members at such an astonishingly high rate was to be found not in brilliant marketing strategies or persuasive apologetics, but in the households of faith. Families, functioning like “little churches,” would welcome other people — especially orphans and the needy — and whole families into their ambit of faith. Hospitality was the most persuasive argument in favor of belief in a God who is love. Especially in this arena, it was the women in the households who were the front-line evangelists, employing their relational genius to invite people into webs of care and love and friendship. And that web was the natural habitat of Christian faith.
The most genuine Christian apologetic is “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).
The family allowed a privileged space for a concentrated, vibrant and living witness of what Christian charity looked like, felt like, tasted like in action. Christian households were seen as temples in which Christ dwelt and supped with family members and their guests. Christian homes were spaces wherein the centripetal ‘liturgy of marriage’ was celebrated as a gathering force for the scattered children of God. Christians did not look to evolving church institutions — parishes, dioceses — or to clerics to do the work of evangelization, but saw themselves, above all in their own homes, as ground zeros in which Jesus detonated His loving plan of redeeming the world into a single community of love under one God and Father.
Pastors and ecclesial leaders would do well to place their best energies in service to cultivating the domestic church, as it is true in every age that the future of humanity, and of the church, passes through the family. And families should look nowhere else other than there own home, where charity begins, to kick start the revolution of God in our (ripe for picking) age of alienation.