The Ultimate Model of Sacrificial Love

The gospel reading for Palm Sunday tells about Jesus’ glorious entry into Jerusalem. The Jewish authorities were afraid that the people would declare him king, and with that the power of their leadership would be threatened. So the Sanhedrin plotted to put Jesus to death and Judas conspired against him. Palm Sunday is all about the passion of Christ that’s about to take place, all about sacrificial love.

The passion of Jesus was announced in John’s gospel when he said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” In this statement there is a tremendous paradox because to many of the Jews, the title “Son of Man” stood for an undefeatable world conqueror sent by God. So when he said that, they believed that the triumph-call of all eternity had sounded, that the might of heaven was on the march, and the campaign of victory had begun.

This is not at all what Jesus meant by “glorified”. By glorified, he meant “crucified.” When the “Son of Man” was mentioned, they thought of the conquest of the armies; he thought of the conquest of the cross.

EntryIntoJerusalem-DuccioAs Jesus rides into Jerusalem and he looks at the City, he sees what the people could not see. It is there on the outskirts of the city that the battle will end. He sees the staging of Satan. The Evil One has seized the heart of Judas and he has whispered in the ear of Caiaphas. Jesus knew that when the going got tough, his closest friends would run, and that his was not the glory of popularity, but the glory of isolation. It was glory because it was for us, and because it was instead of us.

Jesus knew that before the war would be over, he must be taken captive. He knew that before victory there would be pain. He knew that before the throne would come the cup. He knew that before the light of Easter Sunday, there must be the darkness of Good Friday, and before his ascent into heaven, there must be a descent into hell. At the very moment when the crowds of people would be cheering, Jesus would be in agony.

He would be in agony because this was his hour, the hour to which every word and every act in scripture pointed. Jesus would be in agony because He knew from all eternity past that this was indeed the time for the cross. It was agony for Jesus to do the will of his Father, but there was no other way. Jesus was not saved from this hour. He was saved for it, and so are we. What was the passion of Jesus? We are the passion of Jesus because in the end Jesus would rather go through hell for us than go to heaven without us.

Jesus made a decision, a decision that would change the course of history forever. His entry into Jerusalem would not be in anticipation of being crowned; it would be in anticipation of being crucified. It would be the ultimate example of supreme courage, knowing He was going, voluntarily and sacrificially to his death on our behalf, as our ransom, as our substitute.

Jesus came to the Jews with a new view of life. They looked on glory as conquest, the acquisition of power, and the right to rule. He looked on it as the cross. He taught that life comes only by death, that only by spending life do we retain it, and that greatness only comes through service.

Jesus was fighting a battle with the human longing to avoid the cross, but nothing is gained without sacrifice. Real courage doesn’t mean not being afraid. It means being terribly afraid, yet sacrificing out of love, doing what must be done for the good of others and for the glory of God.

This is what his passion was all about. Sacrificial love is what we see when we look at the cross. Sacrificial love is the goal of our Lenten journey – the only sure foundation for life, the only sure foundation for a family, a community or a kingdom. Sacrificial love is the only thing that we take with us when we leave this world, and the only thing that will last forever. It’s the key to conversion, the key to becoming just like Jesus.

So for those preparing to come into the church at the Easter Vigil and for all of us preparing for Holy Week, let this be our fervent prayer:

Take from us, Lord, that which continues to separate us from you: pride, greed and selfishness. Increase in us that which brings us closer to you: patience, humility and sacrificial love.

Deacon Greg Ollick teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Protecting, Respecting, and Cherishing the Union of the Marital Act

Today’s readings (Isaiah 7:10-14, 8:10; Psalm 40:7-11; Hebrews 10:4-10; Luke 1:26-38) of the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord prophesy and highlight Mary of Nazareth’s virginal self-giving love in her fiat or “yes” to God. Would Mary consent to be the Mother of the Son of God Incarnate? She responds to the angel Gabriel, “Be it done unto me according to your word.” (The first part of this response is almost identical to Jesus’ fiat in His agony in the garden, as well as the centerpiece of the Our Father, “Your will be done.”) The Virgin Mary’s unconditional and profoundly obedient love of God informs her fiat. Mary’s sexuality, and therefore her motherhood, embrace her affirmation to love God in return.

In today’s world, social decline in faith, virtue, and family stability, among other reasons, have weakened the concept and exercise of “commitment,” so clearly embodied by the Virgin Mary. To “commit” to something, for many, seems too difficult, almost archaic, especially in reference to something other-centered. This is true, for example, concerning marriage. Do most couples, when exchanging marriage vows at their wedding, seriously intend faithful commitment for better or worse until death? Do they understand the meaning of a vow, and are they dedicated to spousal love “no matter what?” Total, self-giving commitment to another in marriage is slowly (or not so slowly) becoming culturally anomalous, if not anachronistic. This is not surprising since commitment to God—the foundation of all other just and loving commitments—is a notion slowly receding into oblivion in our collective, cultural mindset. Without commitment to God, universal truths, and absolute moral norms, relativism spawns, multiplies, and destroys soul and society. In Scripture, God warns us about this contagion, such as corrupting the absolute character of the Decalogue, the Commandments of love (e.g., Isiah 5:20-24; Torah in v.24 is an Isaian reference to the Decalogue).

By disuse and even wholesale rejection of virtue—the greatest of which is love of God—our culture has atrophied in wisdom and moral character and no longer recognizes the purpose of sexuality. We, the people, by and large, view sexual activity as a multi-method approach of obtaining orgasmic pleasure. This is no overstatement—our pervasive and long-standing contraceptive mentality and practice, cohabitation, seduction into the multi-billion dollar pornography enterprise, and political and legislative eradication of the meaning of marriage (in favor of formalized consensual license to engage in sexual activity), reflect our true colors.

In the order of nature, sexual activity—elicited by sexual desire—is oriented toward union of bodily persons. Self-giving, marital love is God’s signature design of this union. To effect it, four conditions must be met.  First, the union must be willed. Second, it must be complementary of one man to one woman to create the union. Third, it must be faithful because of its profound intimacy. Fourth, it must be respectful of the life-giving act of lovemaking, and therefore be open to life, i.e., must not sterilize lovemaking because of its reproductive character. This procreative dimension—the reproductive character—is an intrinsic aspect of conjugal union. A denial of the procreative, fruitful dimension of the conjugal act is a denial of its union. A partial, but not total self-gift in lovemaking contradicts the complete gift of self expressed in the body language of love, so well-illustrated by St. Pope John Paul the Great’s theology of the body.

Among proponents of the oxymoron, “gay marriage,” some argue that the Catholic Church’s teaching of procreation as a fundamental good of marriage is erroneous because elderly married couples would cease to be married, or elderly couples could not marry because of their inability to procreate. However—as (most) everyone knows—a married couple does not conceive a child each time they make love! Marital union does embody a reproductive character: to denigrate this character denigrates the sacred union.

The Virgin Mary’s courageous, unwavering fiat must be ours, as well. Our undying commitment and loyalty to God embraces all of His will, including those facets most countercultural, such as respect for the marital act. Let us imitate Mary, and serve God faithfully, bravely, chastely. By doing so, we will live with integrity. In addition—God willing—we will serve as an example for others to follow, stimulate personal and social growth in virtue, and thereby reclaim and even advance the grace and teaching of Christ. “Though grass withers…the Word of our God stands forever!” (Isaiah 40:8).

Mark Koehne teaches moral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.