by Abbot Joseph
[You can read this at Word Incarnate or continue below.]
The Gospel passage I’ve chosen for the sacrificial level of spiritual life is the following: “Greater love has no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.” I could have also chosen Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile, to take up our cross and follow Him, or to sell all and become his disciples. But I think this one is most appropriate, for it explicitly presents love as the basis for sacrifice. Now, we don’t have literally to lay down our lives (although that is the ultimate sacrifice), but every sacrifice we make for love of another is a way of laying down our lives, putting others’ needs ahead of our own.
“Sacrifice” is a much maligned and misunderstood term. It often carries the connotation of something distasteful or painful offered or endured for some ostensibly “greater good.” We give up stuff for Lent as a sacrifice; we put up with some illness or disappointment as a sacrifice. All of life’s inescapable unpleasantness we more or less reluctantly offer as a sacrifice. This is not entirely incorrect, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far.
A sacrifice is an act of worship, literally a “sacred action.” In the Old Testament, animals and various kinds of produce were offered in sacrifice for various reasons: atonement, purification, thanksgiving, etc. These acts are always directed toward God, expressing our awareness that all things belong to Him anyway, including our very lives, which are now freely (if only symbolically at this point) offered back to Him. Our life has ultimately to become a sacred action in its entirety, a true and personal self-offering. There is the element of self-denial and perhaps even of suffering involved, but mainly it is a gift of oneself to God, and to others for God’s sake. It is an act of worship.
To make the move from selfishness all the way to sacrifice involves more than merely shifting attention away from ourselves. We have to acquire a whole new world-view, a way of looking at life and people and death and eternity that enables us to live in a different way. In short, we have to look at life through the eyes of Jesus, that is, with eyes of love.
Not only must we overcome selfishness, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to simple justice in human relationships, either. To love sacrificially is to go the extra mile, to give more than is strictly required, to be willing to “bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). To advance from the Golden Rule to the spirit of sacrifice is to go from “love your neighbor as yourself” to “love one another as I have loved you.”
One who lives a sacrificial life does not count the number of individual sacrifices that must be made, for to live is to give. But in order to live in this way, one must truly know the love of God and be enkindled with a living hope for eternal blessedness with Him. Christ in us is our hope of glory, and therefore we willingly toil, striving with the energy He mightily inspires in us (see Colossians 1:27-29).
Devoted spouses and parents know what sacrificial love is about, when raising children or perhaps caring for a disabled spouse. You simply do what love requires, because it is the only way to live a Christ-like (and thus fully human) life. Monks know about sacrificial love in a somewhat different way. The faithful living of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the application of oneself to long hours of prayer, fasting, vigils, and the other demands of the consecrated life show that this path is designed to be sacrificial! We do all this as St Paul did, according to his famous saying: “in my flesh I complete what is lacking Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the church” (Colossians 1:24). Sacrifice thus becomes intercession; walking the narrow way with Jesus bears fruit far beyond the confines of our own souls.
Once sacrifice becomes a way of life, and hence the difficulties seem less difficult, and love softens all sufferings, can we really say that we are making sacrifices any more? Of course! Sacrifice should not be wholly identified with pain or the harshness of some forms of self-denial. Even if love’s requirements become easier through faithful practice and the consolation of the grace of God, our life is still sacrificial, that is, still a sacred action, an act of worship.
Jesus’ call to holiness is meant to make our joy complete. Sacrifice should mean a cheerful offering of all that life brings, not a grudging acceptance of the inevitable. The Lord came to bring abundant life, but He knows that selfishness suffocates true life, and that even justice is inadequate for the fullness of life and joy. Nothing short of the full outpouring of our life in love will lead us to peace and everlasting happiness. “By this we know love, that He laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1John 3:16). Selfishness must be eradicated, justice transcended, and sacrificial love embraced as the highest good we can experience in this life. This is because it is Jesus’ way of life, He who knows better than anyone the meaning of genuine love, the value of the gift of oneself.
The sacrificial life will inevitably lead us to the Cross. Again, this does not mean a literal crucifixion, but it does mean a total and unqualified self-giving, without the expectation of compensation or temporal reward. This does not mean that God will not grant such blessings (He often does), but that it should not be a condition for “laying down our lives” for our brothers and sisters.
One of the conditions that we usually let go of last is that of desiring some sort of acknowledgment from others, or some other personal satisfaction, from our gift of self (but remember, a true gift has no strings attached). When we do something for someone, we’d like to see some appreciation; when we forgive someone, we like to receive an apology or some other expression of repentance; when we love, we’d like to be loved in return. This is only natural, but the mystery of the Cross goes beyond all that. Jesus’ tortured body itself is the ultimate icon of unrequited love, and his prayer of forgiveness fell on the deaf ears of the jeering crowd. But He loved them to the end. He did not cease giving just because there was no return from others.
The Lord’s complete sacrifice removed the flaming sword from the entrance to Paradise. Thus we know that the road of spiritual life leads to our heavenly homeland. As we rejoice in the fruits of Jesus’ sacrifice, let us also hear his words: “No servant is greater than his master… Where I am, there will my servant be.” We cannot elude the Cross if we wish to live in faith and love, but let us hear the rest of the above passage: “My Father will honor whoever serves Me” (John 12:26). If we are with Him on the Cross, we will also be with Him in the bliss of heaven.
As you read this, you may agree that the road is indeed long, seemingly interminable, from where we are to where Christ is, in the eternal glory of the Holy Trinity. But the only way to get there is to start taking steps. (You can find Him at every step, by the way, for He is with us always, not just waiting at the end of the line.) Examine the ways that selfishness may still influence your attitudes and actions. Begin to treat others as you would have them treat you. Keep walking along this road; don’t stop now. You’re not there yet. Move toward a more sacrificial lifestyle, for “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Turn your life into a sacred action, and do not shrink from the demands of discipleship, the call of the Cross. Jesus walks with you, He who has overcome the world and all obstacles to an abundant, rewarding life. If you want it, He will give it to you, and you will have no regrets.
The journey from selfishness to sacrifice is somewhat analogous to our basic human passage from childhood to adulthood. There are stages, transitions, times of growth, success, and failure. We don’t have a choice about growing old, but we can choose to grow up, that is, to mature, to become less selfish, more giving, more loving. It takes a lot of faith, and a lot of effort, and at least a few tears as well. No one said it would be easy, only that it would be good. “So you have sorrow now, but…your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22). The way of sacrificial love is the only way to true and lasting joy. Keep walking.