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The Joy And Beauty Of Sacrificial Love

June 10, 2019 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


There is something profoundly intimate about chapters 13 to 17 of the Gospel of St. John — the apostle’s meticulous account of Our Lord’s Farewell Discourse at the Last Supper. For those who might wonder where the Sacred Heart of Jesus is mentioned in the Gospels, they can find it in these pages. For it is here, as our Lord stands upon the threshold of His transitus, just hours away from His Passion and death on the cross, that He pours out His Heart, telling us how very much He loves us, and beseeching us to love Him in return:
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love” (John 15:9); “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23); “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit” (John 15:5).
The love to which our Lord so ardently invites us in these words is a sacrificial love: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Is this not the reason why He spoke of it at such length just before His Passion? Indeed, the Last Supper Discourse can really be seen as a preparation that our Lord gave the apostles for what would transpire on Good Friday, an explanation of what He would do on Good Friday, an explanation that they would not fully understand until after Good Friday: “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand” (John 13:7).
Thus to understand what it fully means to imitate Christ we need above all else to look upon the crucifix. Whatever our vocation in life may be, it is in the crucifix that we will find its deepest meaning. For a priest, to comprehend fully what it means to be an “alter Christus,” what it means to give himself totally to God in divine worship, and to give Christ to his people through the sacraments and preaching, he will find his ultimate pattern of life in Christ Crucified.
The priestly rite of Ordination intimates this in the prostration of the ordinands, their physical posture upon the floor resembling that of Christ on the cross; later in the rite, when the bishop presents to each newly ordained priest a chalice and paten with the “oblata” for the Mass, he instructs them, “conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross” (Rite of Ordination of a Priest, n. 163, © ICEL, 2002, ©USCCB, 2003). Even the black of a priest’s attire communicates his death to the things of this world in likeness to Christ’s total self-giving oblation and death on Golgotha.
For those called to leave all to follow Christ in the religious life, conformity to our Lord on the cross is brought to its utmost perfection through the three evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Their obedience mirrors Christ’s obedience “unto death” (Phil. 2:8), their poverty echoes our Lord being stripped of His garments on Calvary, and their chastity recalls Christ taking the Church as His virginal Bride, pouring out His Blood for her.
Just as is the case with the priesthood, so too the decision of a young person to enter religious life requires sacrificial love not only from the man or woman embarking upon this state, but also from his or her family.
In the annals of the saints, there is perhaps no more beautiful example of a child helping a beloved parent to embrace this sacrifice than that of the Carmelite mystic St. Elizabeth of the Trinity (1880-1906). The letters she sent to her widowed mother following her entry into the Carmel of Dijon, France, are among the most exquisite testaments of a daughter’s imperishable love ever penned. In a letter from mid-October of 1902, Elizabeth wrote:
“Oh, darling Mama, you are not alone. He is there, He, and those who have left you for Him! Tonight, in the silence of this dear little cell, alone with Him I love, my soul and my heart go to find you; and I think that if, in reality, I were there with you, I would be less so, for you can really feel there is no distance for hearts, and that of your Elizabeth is always yours” (text in St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, I Have Found God: Complete Works, Volume II, trans. Anne Nash, Washington, D.C., ICS Publications, 2014, letter 141, p. 72).
A comparable albeit different conformity to the crucifix is required of married couples. In speaking of the love that a Catholic husband is to give his wife as taught by St. Paul (Eph. 5:25-27), St. Thomas More (1478-1535) quite directly describes it as a sacrificial love, explaining:
“St. Paul here exhorteth men to love their wives, so tenderly that they should be of the mind, that to bring them to Heaven they could find in their hearts to die for them, as Christ hath died for the Christian people to bring them to Heaven, and that men, to that intent that they may bring their wives to the glorious bliss of Heaven, should here bring them well up in faith, in hope, and charity, and in good works, like as God hath washed His Church of all Christian people” (Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer, book 8, in The Workes of Sir Thomas More Knyght, sometyme Lorde Chauncellour of England, wrytten by Him in the Englysh Tonge, ed. William Rastell, London, 1557, p. 744).
More’s concept of a husband sacrificing himself for the sanctification of his wife is echoed in Dietrich von Hildebrand’s beautiful affirmation that true love between Catholic spouses is filled with “a fervent desire for the eternal welfare of the beloved” and “an insatiable longing to see the beloved more and more transformed into Christ” (Marriage: The Mystery of Faithful Love, Manchester, NH, Sophia Institute Press, 1991, pp. 46, 48).
Of course most parents, at least those who take their vocation seriously, understand that raising their children will require sacrifices from them that begin as soon as a child is born. But for Catholic parents who recognize the dangers of the age in which we now live, the sacrifices that will be required of them to protect their children from false teachings and moral evils can become almost a dry martyrdom.
My late mother used to recount to me that at the end of a conversation she was having with a fellow Catholic parent, a Catholic husband and father who like her was fighting to raise his children in the faith in this modern era of doctrinal confusion, he said as he was getting into his truck, “Each day we have to die a little for our children.”
Many of the Catholic laity, whether single or married, and often enough priests and religious as well, will find themselves at some point later in life called upon to give to their parents what their parents early in life gave them. The care of an ill or aging parent is a summons to sacrificial love that requires generosity, compassion, patience, and perseverance.
It is a profound act of reverence for the mother and father who gave us life and taught us our faith. If those given this duty would but see with the eyes of faith, they would begin to discover in the weak and wearied limbs of their aged father or mother a glimpse of the suffering limbs of our Lord in His Passion.

Love Bears All Things

There will be occasions in our lives when the happiness of another person will come at the expense of our own. The most common and mundane example of this is the loss of a game, but there are others involving a more costly and painful loss or sacrifice.
In such instances our fallen nature will tempt us to sinful envy, jealousy, and resentment that another has gained what we have lost, but a true love of God and neighbor summons us to accept the outcome as the will of God, and even to rejoice in the happiness of the other person, to rejoice that God has heard and granted his prayer, that his aspiration, his hope, his dream has been fulfilled.
Nowhere, perhaps, is this expressed more compellingly than in the well-known Litany of Humility of Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val (1865-1930), wherein we find the petitions, “That others may be loved more than I, / That others may be esteemed more than I, / That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, / That others may be chosen and I set aside, / That others may be praised and I unnoticed, / That others may be preferred to me in everything, / Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.”
In this form of sacrificial love as in all others, if we can look upon the crosses that God allows into our lives and the sacrifices He asks of us with faith, if we can summon the God-given courage to embrace such crosses, to run toward them, as it were, rather than run and hide from them, we will find peace and even joy. Yes, there is a sublime joy in shattering open the alabaster jar of myrrh, in anointing the sacred feet of our Lord with the most precious and fragrant ointment of our costliest sacrifices and sufferings.
I recall the observation made by a Dominican priest in a talk I attended years ago that the religious habits of men and women religious are the nuptial garments of Heaven. One can thus see in the habits of monks, friars, and nuns as well as in the distinctive black vesture of priests a visual celebration of their sacrificial love, an expression of the joy of having totally sacrificed their lives for the love of God, just as the wedding garments of the bride and groom at a wedding are an expression of the joy of giving themselves totally to each other in holy Matrimony.
All true love is sacrificial — St. Paul’s definition says it all: “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:4-7).

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