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This article was published in the January 2000 issue of The Journal.

Interchurch Families – a Triptych

In 1998 a picture was painted (in oil on wood) for the Association of Interchurch Families by one of the sisters of the Benedictine Community at Turvey in Bedfordshire, Sr Regina. AIF has reproduced it for our publicity leaflets; we have also produced post-cards and full-size posters from it. It has proved to be a useful visual aid in trying to explain to others what interchurch families are all about, what they stand for.

Because it is a work of art, it is an aid to reflective prayer; the lines, colours and symbols can constantly open our minds and hearts to new meanings, to a deeper significance. You can always see new things in it, and it speaks to different people in different ways. I am looking at it here in a way which comes naturally to me; others will use another language and speak of it in other ways.

Baptism and marriage
Our picture is a triptych. If you look at the left-hand panel you will see that it shows a couple. There stand a man and a woman who have come from two different churches, both in the sense of denominations and of local congregations. They represent two distinct church traditions, but they share one baptism – they have both been baptised into Christ by water and the Spirit. The flowing water represents the waters of baptism; the heavenly dove the Spirit. But our couple, both baptised Christians, are committing themselves to share the marriage covenant together – represented here by the water jars of Cana, where the first miracle that Jesus performed according to St John’s Gospel took place at a wedding celebration, when water became wine (John 2). Thus the two partners together "share the sacraments of baptism and marriage" (Ecumenical Directory, 160); the Holy Spirit who was poured out upon each of them in their baptism, is again poured out upon them, this time as a couple, in their marriage. They are still distinct individuals, but as married partners they are no longer separate individuals. They are bonded together as a couple in communion. In their "intimate community of married life and love" (Gaudium et Spes, 48) they have become one in Christ, by entering into that "one-flesh" relationship which St Paul takes as worthy to represent the Christ-church relationship (Eph.5).

An interchurch family
The middle panel shows an interchurch family – it is based on the AIF logo which was drawn by the same Sr Regina and which we have used ever since the Association began in 1968. Here you see the family as a "domestic church" (Lumen Gentium, 11), and behind them two church buildings that symbolise the two church traditions which nourish the one Christian family. The married couple have become parents, "receiving from God the gift of a new responsibility" (Familiaris Consortio, 14). Together the two parents have the mission of nurturing and educating their child, their children, in the faith of Christ. They are the first teachers of their children; this is "a true ministry, through which the Gospel is transmitted and radiated so that family life is transformed into a journey of faith and the school of Christian life (General Directory for Catechesis, 227). The golden circle represents a wedding ring, the sign of their marriage covenant from which springs this responsibility. The white circle within the ring represents the eucharistic Bread which the family needs to sustain, nourish and build up their domestic church. For they are truly "the church in their home", as the American bishops put it in the pastoral letter they issued for the International Year of the Family in 1994. "The Christian family is called to experience a new and original communion which confirms and perfects natural and human communion. … The Holy Spirit, who is poured forth in the celebration of the sacraments, is the living source and inexhaustible sustenance of the supernatural communion that gathers together believers and links them with Christ and with each other in the unity of the Church of God. The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realisation of ecclesial communion, and for this reason can and should be called ‘the domestic church’"(Familiaris Consortio,21).

The marriage supper of the Lamb
Originally we had thought that the third panel would show the City of God, with interchurch families on their pilgrim way to the Father’s house in company with all God’s people. But then it occurred to us that it is the image of the marriage supper of the Lamb that has often been used by interchurch families over the years, to express their longing for the final consummation when God is All in all. Then all will eat together at God’s one table, as one family. So the third panel represents the marriage supper of the Lamb, which every eucharist foreshadows (Happy are those who are called to his supper, we say just before communion in the rite of the mass) and to which the whole church is called, to which the whole church looks forward. It shows the marriage supper of the Lamb, but not as a Lamb standing on an altar, surrounded by crowds of worshippers, as in the famous painting of Van Eyck in Ghent Cathedral. Here it is pictured as the Russian painter Roublev does in his even more famous icon – in the form of the three travellers welcomed and fed by Abraham and Sarah under the oak tree at Mamre. This has been taken in Christian tradition as an image of the life of the Trinity into which we are all called. Thus the last panel shows the nature of the communion that the partners share through baptism and marriage – through both they are being drawn into the life of God, into the love-relationship of the Father and the Son, through the Spirit, into the living communion of the Trinity.

A eucharistic reference
There is a eucharistic reference in every panel.

The first has the water of baptism and the wine of the eucharist – the Blood of Christ representing the life of Christ which flows into our lives. The theme recalls the sermon preached in 1987 for John and Nicola Austerberry at their wedding by John’s father (an Anglican priest): "Water into Wine". The full text can be found in the sheet "A wedding in Manchester" in the AIF Getting Married Pack. He told them to pour all the treasures of their baptismal experience into their water jars together, because only when they had done this would they be able to draw out at Jesus’ command, and taste the water turned into wine. "Then will our shared baptismal experience be turned into a shared eucharistic experience and we will realise that we have left the best wine to last."

In the second panel we saw that the white circle within the wedding ring represents the host – the Bread of Life which binds the Body of Christ together (we are the Body because we eat the Body). The family needs the eucharist to build up their one "little church" at home – represented in outline around the ring. For the eucharist "is the very source of Christian marriage … in it Christian spouses encounter the source from which their own marriage covenant flows, is interiorly structured and continuously renewed" (Familiaris Consortio, 57).

The icon of the third panel clearly has a eucharistic reference. Roublev actually painted a Lamb in the chalice, although it cannot be seen in small reproductions. Here is the theme of self-sacrificing love at the centre of the life of the Trinity – the Lamb of the Apocalypse "slain before the foundation of the world". But there is more in the third panel. Below is an ordinary interchurch family at table; they are called in their everyday lives to make visible that unity, that communion in the marriage supper of the Lamb to which all are called. This juxtaposition of the Trinity and any ordinary interchurch family at table reminds us of the Quaker conviction that God is present at every family meal. The eucharist is immensely important for the domestic church – for interchurch families most of all, perhaps – as a sign, instrument and foretaste of the marriage supper of the Lamb, when all will be united in the Kingdom of God, in the Holy Trinity. This ultimate unity is given to us in the Holy Spirit, experienced and expressed in our everyday lives. In the account of the Last Supper in the Fourth Gospel, the words of institution used at the eucharist are replaced by the foot-washing. Above all, we are called to humble, self-giving service in our everyday lives, laying down our lives for one another, as Jesus laid down his life for us all.

Ruth Reardon

Full-colour posters of the triptych are available from the Association of Interchurch Families at Bastille Court, 2 Paris Garden, London SE1 8ND , price £6.50 + £1 p/p. Post-cards of the triptych are available at 25p each, 5 for £1+20 p. p/p (postage discounts for quantities), as are post-cards of the central panel alone.