“Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
We speak often of the gift of redemption that Christ offers us via His death on the cross. But through His Passion and death, He gives us another gift as well. One that we often overlook. He offers us an opportunity to experience first-hand that “greater love” of which He speaks. Not through His sacrifice. But through our own.
Of all the imaginable plans for redemption that one could have conceived, it seems the one God chose is most peculiar. After all, His only Son didn’t come into the public realm until His 30th year, he surrounded Himself with devoted friends, walked with them, talked with them, and confided in them over the course of three years, only to allow leaders of the day to mock Him, scourge Him, strip Him of His dignity, nail Him to a cross in a most humiliating way and leave Him to hang for three hours until he breathed his last.
What about that makes sense? As a Protestant, I must admit I didn’t ask very many questions. I just accepted that He died, so I didn’t have to.
But after spending some time contemplating the cross, I began to think I wasn’t seeing the whole picture. I began asking. Thankfully, our Faith offers answers. And they are more profound and beautiful than I could have ever imagined.
My greatest question had to do with His manner of death. We understand that Christ redeemed us from the absolute misery and degradation of sin. But why in this way – through a humiliatingly public and torturous death which reached its climax atop a mountain, upon a crude and rugged cross?
Why did Christ have to make redemption such a profound and gruesome process?
Most likely His goal was to give us an example to follow:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35).
With those six little words, “even as I have loved you,” Christ gives us everything.
By virtue of His cross, Christ re-opened the gates of heaven. Gates that had been closed for thousands of years as a consequence of the first sin. He demonstrated for us the power of that cross. And He calls us to follow his example:
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25),
This is that narrow gate about which we hear so often (Matthew 7:13).
Love is not a a pile of sentimental poems or a confetti of rose petals streaming from the heavens.
In reality, love looks a lot like suffering. It can be painful. It can be heart wrenching.
Indeed, love is a sacrifice.
A sacrifice first wrought by Christ, who came to show us The Way.
According to Pope Benedict XVI in Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week,
He has truly gone right to the end, to the very limit and even beyond that limit. He has accomplished the utter fullness of love – he has given himself.
First Christ defined love.
And then He asked us to practice it.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22: 36-39).
For God, love = sacrifice.
And what is a sacrifice, but suffering, wrapped in a beautiful package and offered as pure gift?
Through our participation in the Body of Christ, we have the opportunity to unite our suffering with His, as we truly are One Body – this is not mere concept and symbolism. Rather, the very gift of Self that Christ has given us is the grace that helps us to love as He has loved. As Paul explains, through our participation in The Body, we have the privilege of participating in redemption:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church….(Colossians 1:24)
Paul bids us to offer ourselves as well, to worship God through our own participation in this new concept of sacrifice that Jesus has introduced by the cross:
I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present you bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.(Romans 12:1).
Benedict XVI expounds on this concept of sacrifice:
…it means the offering of one’s whole existence that must be penetrated by the word and must become a gift to God. Paul, who places so much emphasis on the impossibility of justification on the basis of one’s own morality, is doubtless presupposing that this new form of Christian worship, in which Christians themselves are the “living and holy sacrifice”, is possible only through sharing in the incarnate love of Jesus Christ, a love that conquers all our insufficiency through the power of his holiness…
…the greatness of Christ’s love is revealed precisely in the fact that he takes us up into himself in all our wretchedness, into his living and holy sacrifice, so that we truly become “his body.”
Later, he concludes,
In living out the Gospel and in suffering for it, the Church, under the guidance of the apostolic preaching has learned to understand the mystery of the Cross more and more, even though ultimately it is a mystery that defies analysis in terms of our rational formulae. The darkness and irrationality of sin and the holiness of God, too dazzling for our eyes, come together in the Cross, transcending our power of understanding. And yet in the message of the New Testament, and in the proof of that message in the lives of the saints, the great mystery has become radiant light.
This is God’s gift to us. The opportunity to unite our sufferings, our frustrations, our inconveniences, to His in Love. For the good of ourselves; for the good of the body of Christ, that is, the Church.
Throughout our lives as Children of God, we are offered an infinite number of “rungs” upon which to climb as we progress up the ladder of the Cross. When we ascend in love, the result is beautiful, both in Heaven and on earth.
When you look at a crucifix today, thank God for the gift of sacrifice.
And ask for the grace to answer His call.