Last Sunday I experienced one of the proudest moments of my parenting career thus far: watching my first child make her First Holy Communion. Emily Grace turned seven in January, and ever since she read a children’s biography on St. Catherine of Siena this past April, she had begged to go ahead and make her first communion, rather than waiting until the end of second grade the following year. Inspired by St. Catherine’s visions of Jesus that began at age six, Emily Grace longed for that same closeness to Jesus that the Eucharist, the true body and blood of Christ, would bring her.
And so, after discussing it with one of our priests, Emily Grace made her first confession and picked the following Sunday to make her First Communion. That Sunday also just happened to be the Feast of Saints Anne and Joachim, the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the grandparents of Jesus – and our spiritual grandparents. Fittingly, both sets of Emily Grace’s earthly grandparents were also able to be present for the occasion.
Where did this beautiful faith of Emily Grace’s originate? I would be foolish to attribute it solely to my parenting skills, for truly, it is nothing I or my husband have done. It was a tiny mustard seed, planted there by God, Himself, at the moment of her conception and watered with the graces obtained by the prayers and faith of countless generations come before us: our parents, our grandparents, those ancestors long forgotten, and those spiritual family members in Heaven, stretching back to the beginning of time itself.
It's hard to overstate the importance of family in the life of faith. Both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke recount the genealogy of Jesus, tracing His lineage from Joseph back to Abraham and Adam. And while we know little about Mary’s family, we can infer from Sacred Scripture and Tradition that she, too, is the fulfillment of many generations of prayerful persons, herself steeped in a long tradition of faith and religion. CCC 2204 highlights further how critical family is: “The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion, and for this reason it can and should be called a domestic church. It is a community of faith, hope, and charity; it assumes singular importance in the Church, as is evident in the New Testament.”
What a lofty mission for such a humble and often messy reality! In my own family tree, for example, we have alcoholism, addiction, abuse, poverty, mental illness, disease, abortion, adultery, divorce, and children born out of wedlock. And that’s just in the last three generations! It seems a far cry from the beatific “community of faith, hope, and charity” touted by the Catechism.
And yet, in these same few generations, I can also see something else. Marriages, baptisms, adoptions, births, healing, recovery, resourcefulness, acceptance, fortitude, courage, humility, and above all, GRACE. So much grace.
Families, for better or for worse, establish the “tone” for generations to come. And if you’re one of the many who look upon their family histories with fear, sadness, or shame, you are not alone. Jesus’s own family tree is filled with such notorious sinners, tricksters, and occasional scoundrels as David, Solomon, Jacob, Rahab, Ruth, Tamar, Bathsheba, and Adam himself, the original sinner, just to name a few.
But despite the many failures of Jesus’s ancestors, there were, as in my own family, also instances of great faith: beautiful fiats offered to God by the same miserable humans who, a chapter before, seemed to have mucked it all up beyond repair. And through these collective acts of cooperation with God’s grace over the millennia, the Word was made flesh.
God draws straight with crooked lines, and He has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation (Luke 1:50). Our family trees provide us with the wisdom of experience. It is our job to learn from them, to watch ourselves closely so that we do not forget the things our eyes have seen or let them fade from our hearts, and to teach these things to our children and to their children after them (Deuteronomy 4:9). It is our job to look at our family trees through the lens of eternity and to ensure the trajectory, the “tone” we are setting for the next generation, is one of ever-deepening surrender to His will.
In doing so, He will, as with the mustard seed, transform the meagerness of our individual lives into a great tree (Matthew 13:31-32). And it is through the tree – the cross – that He redeems us all.