Constructing Early Christian Families: Family as Social Reality and Metaphor

By Halvor Moxnes | Go to book overview

4

THE FAMILY AS THE BEARER OF RELIGION IN JUDAISM AND EARLY CHRISTIANITY

John M.G. Barclay

I recently came across the following prayer while on holiday in the Republic of Ireland. It was framed and hung on the wall of a farmhouse in Kells and was entitled, ‘A Centenary Tribute to Our Lady from the Davis Family’.

Eternal Father, we give you thanks that she who is the Mother of your Son is our dear mother also, by Divine Decree. A Naoimh Mhuire, Mháthair Dé [Holy Mary, Mother of God], for centuries you have not failed those who trusted in you. You brought us the peace of Christ in the midst of all our trials and sanctified our daily lives through the Family Rosary. Céad mile buiochas leat A Mhaighdean Ghlormhar [One hundred thousand thanks to you, Glorious Virgin]. The future holds no fears for those who trust you. So be a mother in our homes and in those of future generations. Let the peace of Christ be known to our children’s children. May the pledge we make today of Daily Family Prayer consecrate our home to you always.

That prayer encapsulates something deeply significant about the conception of religion within the Irish Catholic tradition. It represents a piety which reaches back through past generations and forward into the future through the medium of the family. Each new generation is heir to a sense of loyalty to Our Lady, expressed in the Family Rosary and the Daily Family Prayer, and these function to sanctify the ‘daily lives’ of members of the family in every detail. Family life is thus held within a strong web of piety, and the persistent use of familial metaphors in this prayer serves to reinforce its sacred significance: God is addressed as the ‘Eternal Father’, while Mary is honoured as ‘our dear mother’. Religion is here deeply embedded in the life of the family, permeating its traditions, expectations and daily practices.

My purpose in this chapter is to ask to what extent religion was embedded in the lives and ideologies of families in the ancient world, and to compare, in particular, the Jewish tradition with some features of the early Christian movement. By ‘family’ I mean inter-generational social units which shared a domicile (although, of course, the ancient ‘household’ did not generally correspond to our current idealisations of ‘family’), and in pursuing

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