The catechism from which I drew my religious instruction as a child said a Christian sacrament was an "outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace."
Later on, in the seminary, the theology text we used on sacraments was written by Edward Schillebeeckx and he defined a sacrament in words to this effect: "A sacrament is anything that visibly, tangibly makes present or prolongs a saving action of God."
While both definitions are theologically very good, they are too abstract to give us a real sense of what precisely a sacrament is and where a sacrament is sometimes found. I prefer a more colloquial definition, one that simply defines a sacrament as "anything that gives skin to God." What is meant by this?
There is a marvellous story told of a four-year-old girl who woke up one night frightened, convinced that there were monsters and spooks in her room. So she ran to her parents' bedroom.
Her mother, brought her back to her own room, put on a number of lights, showed the child there was nothing to be afraid of, put her back to bed, calmed her and finally left her with the words: "There is nothing to be afraid of. When I leave, you won't be alone in the room. God will be here with you."
But the young girl replied: "I know God will be here with me, but I need someone in the room who has some skin!"
There is wisdom, and theology, to her response. As human beings we are creatures of the senses. We need something we can grasp tangibly, physically. Thus, a God who is everywhere is, at a certain point, nowhere.
God, of course, knows this and that is why we have been given God's presence physically in sacrament. Understood in this sense, there are more than seven sacraments. Family life is, or at least it can be, a sacrament. Like the Eucharist, or any other sacrament, it can give flesh to God.
Partly this can be understood by contrast. Jean-Paul Sartre once said "the other is hell." That, for a Christian, and for every other major world religion, is the exact opposite of the truth. Hell is alienation, arrogant self-willed aloneness, the opposite of community, non-family.
As John Shea so aptly puts it, hell is never a surprise waiting for a happy person, but the full-flowering of a life of arrogant alienation. Heaven is union with others. Thus as long as we are somehow linked to a community and family we cannot go to hell.
Buckminster Fuller once said God is not just a noun, but also a verb. That is true. God is not just a person, but also a certain flow of life, a flow of receptivity and gratitude between three persons.
Inside of God there is a kind of family life going on and Jesus has assured us that when we give and receive from each other within a family, when we break open our lives and hearts and joys and frustrations and egos and agendas and finances, and share these with each other, we are letting the life of God flow through us and we are giving skin to the inner life of the Trinity.
In that sense, family life is a sacrament and, for many, the most important sacrament. It is the one that touches our lives and transforms us the most deeply.
All of this should not be unduly romanticized. To say family life is a sacrament is not to say it will not be fraught with pettiness, frustration, anger, pathology, and even at times real sin. Our families are never the holy family!
I remember my mother, a truly pious and good woman, occasionally lamenting how in her idealism she dreamed of being the mother of the holy family – and she ended up getting stuck with us!
Our families are never the romanticized stuff of our adolescent or pious dreams. Nor are they ever the idealized families of literature and movies, where people are still attractive, interesting, and worthy of our understanding and sympathy even when they are selfish, jealous and unfaithful.
Understanding and sympathy in the midst of the muck and grime of real family life are considerably harder to crank up. However, unless there is present the kind of abuse that violates the soul, family life remains a sacrament – sometimes indeed because of its imperfections rather than in spite of them.
In forming hearts that are big enough to love and forgive within imperfection we ready ourselves for heaven.
For many, coming home from the hospital to join a family will be our first Baptism, our family dwelling will be our primary church, our family table our primary place of Eucharist, our marriage bed our deepest experience of Eucharist, and our reconciliation with each other our ongoing sacrament of reconciliation.
It is there that the flow of the life that originates within God, and finds its perfection there, will flow through us.