It is inescapable.
If you care for other people you cannot avoid putting yourself out for the sake of another.
And it’s just what we need, really.
Sacrifice for another, it might be said, is perhaps the ultimate “yes” that one can offer another person, and unto God.
Sacrifice acts on behalf of another, putting them first, not furthering one’s own cause. It entails interrupting or delaying our own plans, desires, trajectories, goals, and even giving something we may be afraid to lose—our time, money, comfort, power, or prestige—for the sake of another who may or may not be worthy of it.
True sacrifice is a profound offering—a mix of generosity, magnanimity, humility, love, and selflessness.
We sure do appreciate it when someone else shoulders our burden in the muddiness of life, or has our back when the fight is on, or stands in the gap between what we can and cannot do for ourselves.
In the midst of being on the receiving end of another’s loving service, we often have no idea to what depth they chose to intervene on our behalf. And it’s often not until long afterward that we have an opportunity to respond in gratitude to what’s been received.
We can all tell the story of how someone’s sacrifices, be they large or small, have made a difference in our life.
Not so long ago, in the middle of the night, I watched my husband moving around in the dark of our bedroom—not wishing to awaken me—using his trusty flashlight. He didn’t know I was already awake.
In the dim light I could see Jesus: head bowed, arms stretched wide open upon the crucifix on the wall, a cherished gift from our wedding day. Just beneath the feet of Jesus, a wooden frame displayed a much younger bride and groom gazing into each other’s eyes, unaware as yet of how proximate the love of the cross would be to their own. Next to the wedding photo, my favorite person dropped down to sit in our old comfy chair. His head bowed as he leans over, stretching lanky arms to reach the laces of his dress shoes. He is preparing to catch yet another early flight for business travels.
I am still in bed taking in this little scene against the backdrop of the cross of Christ and my marriage memories. And suddenly I’m wondering about Eden and just what it meant when God said man would now earn his bread “by the sweat of his face” (Gen. 3:19). And I find myself moved by this man of mine, who faithfully bears that burden in the early morning hour.
And in the next moment, a holy clarity comes into view—Someone Else was Once So Moved—and the words of Jesus echo in the example of my spouse: “This is my body, given up for you” (Lk. 22:19).
And I wondered how many other people were making sacrifices on behalf of someone else in that moment. I’m sure many were up before the first light, whether by choice or by duty.
There are babies to be nursed, hands to be held, fields to be plowed, meals to be made, trains to catch, and all-night care in the local Emergency Room. There are soldiers standing guard, police and firefighters keeping watch, and a third shift needing a fresh pot of coffee. Somewhere someone is receiving the last rites and Viaticum. And in every case, someone is up in the wee hours tending to what is needed.
Sure, some folks might say there is nothing heroic or special about what they do to provide for those they love, or to keep a stable home, or to keep the bills paid. But what is heroic is the faithfulness in which they do it. The giving up and the laying down of a million and one sacrifices made every day and every night. “This is my body, given up for you.”
This is the sacrifice that we bring to the pew at Mass. We kneel, we pray, we offer. We gaze at the blanched corpus of the Savior, no longer bleeding, for it is drained of every last ounce of blood for the sins of the world. Now, it is poured out in a new way.
The priest’s voice breaks in again with the clear truth as he elevates the Host: “This is my body, given up for you.”
I gaze at the Eucharist being offered by the priest unmistakably positioned under the crucifix that hangs from the rafters in our church. I smile a wry grin as I lift my prayers, for I am learning.
A broken body is no longer repugnant; it resembles the sacrifices of many people I know. They all just happen to look like Jesus.
The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the “one mediator between God and men”.1 But because in his incarnate divine person he has in some way united himself to every man, “the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery” is offered to all men.2 He calls his disciples to “take up [their] cross and follow [him]”,3 for “Christ also suffered for [us], leaving [us] an example so that [we] should follow in his steps.”4 (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 618)*
It’s one thing to witness and applaud the extraordinary sacrifices of our esteemed heroes and heroines, thanking them for their determined and dedicated service, especially when we consider the tragedies of 9/11, or any other epic disaster you can name.
But it’s another to remember that sacrifice, for a Christian, is not for emergencies only. It is a way of life, a path to life-giving love. Every day.
The call to holiness is not for wimps. They don’t remember a martyr as having “heroic virtue” for nothing. Indeed, the call to sainthood—sanctity—summons the baptized first to prayer and then to action. Often simultaneously.
In September, the feasts within the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar lend perspective to depths of sacrifice. The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, on September 14, readily comes to mind as we contemplate the salvation won for us by Jesus on Calvary. On September 15, the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows is recalled. September 20 commemorates the 19th-century Korean martyrs of Sts. Andrew Kim Taegon (Korea’s first priest), Paul Chong Hasang, and companions. Finally, September 24 reminds us of the forty-nine Martyrs of Chalcedon who perished under Diocletian’s reign in the 4th century.
You cannot get better role models embodying sacrificial love than Jesus and Mary, and the faithful martyrs of the Church who sought to imitate them.
We see in Mary the woman whose fiat at the Annunciation brought a surrender of her own will to the will of the Father. Her “yes” led to the Incarnation and the immense joy of God’s Son come to earth. It also required, in part, a life that suffered what the Church traditionally labels as the Seven Sorrows of Mary. Each exacted various sacrifices in Mary’s life; including her suffering what theologians call a white martyrdom at Calvary, the bloodless martyrdom that is a true offering of oneself. Still, we can envision her life as a series of many steps of faith leading up to that moment.
We can imagine the young Mother Mary, with tenderness, teaching her young son Jesus the ways of obedience. Demonstrating by her own fortitude that while giving one’s “yes” may be costly, it is often it is the only response required.
Fast-forward, and we can see Jesus as a young rabbi, facing his own imminent death as he prays in Gethsemane. Sweating blood, the soon-to-be-Savior has a very human moment of struggle and anguish as he submits his flesh to the “yes” to do the Father’s will.
This article appeared previously at the Catholic Portal on Patheos, and is used with the author’s permission.