Sunday, May 21, 2006

On Laying Down One's Life

"No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."

As an Associate of the Order of the Holy Cross (an Episcopal, Benedictine monastic order for men; link in the sidebar), it is a part of my discipline to say two Offices every day. Usually I make Morning Prayer and Compline. Since education is also a part of the discipline as well, I try to observe as many feasts of saints and worthies as I can. And to supplement the Episcopal Calendar and the Lesser Feasts and Fasts, I regularly look at the “Biographies” page on the Mission St. Clare web site. For an information junkie like me, it’s fun as well as informative to look through that list. It draws not only from the Episcopal calendar, but from Lutheran, Roman, Greek, Russian, and Coptic calendars, and occasionally even from the Armenian and Assyrian calendars, as near as I can tell.

There is, however, one note in many of those references that I find jarring. Often in telling the story of a martyr of the early Church, some of those remembered, or at least their stories, make a great deal of looking for opportunities to die. Witnessing to the death – witnessing by death – seems less a hazard of being a public Christian than some sort of competition. I’m sure this is more the way the stories are told than the actual history might show; but some of them seem more to be seeking to die for the faith more than to witness to the faith, even if they die for it. The dying seems to become as important, or more important, than the testimony.

Now, as I understand it, the Church long ago decided that was bad theology. At the same time, it was not really all that big a surprise. Jesus died for us, and many have been willing to die for faith in him. It’s not really all that big a surprise that some should put the cart before the horse.

But, it does make it hard for us, doesn’t it? After all, if that is the example of the greatest love, what does that mean for us who aren’t called to it? True, Christians die in many places around the world simply because they’re Christians. But we don’t live in those places. We aren’t called to testify to our faith in the face of those risks. And, honestly, how many of us would if we were faced with it? We hope we would have that kind of faith, that kind of courage; but we can’t be sure if we haven’t been tested. And what if we were tested and failed?

I think that reflects some confusion. You see, dying on the cross was certainly critical, but it wasn’t the only way that Jesus gave of himself to the disciples, and to us. Each day he spent preaching, he was giving of himself. Each time he laid hands on someone to heal, he was giving of himself. Each time he taught the disciples about the Kingdom, he was giving of himself. In a very real sense, he was laying down his life in those acts every bit as much as he would on the cross. Sure, it was not so dramatic; but it was certainly important.

So it is with us. We worry that to give one’s life for another reflects some single, dramatic act, some glorious and tragic death, for the good of another. However, if we give our time to another, that time is gone: we can’t get it back. The hour spent reading to a child instead of for oneself is a piece of life that can never be taken back. Time moves on for us, and we don’t get to reclaim it. With every choice, every step taken to serve another we give a piece of our life, of our time, that we can never recover. With every gift given, every act of charity, every act of compassion and love, we give away pieces of ourselves, pieces of our lives. Certainly, those acts are not dramatic. Indeed, we may not even think about them. But with every act of kindness, whether to friend or family or stranger, we lay down our lives, piecemeal, for others.

Christ laid down his life for us. Certainly, he did it on the cross; but he also did it with every healing and every miracle and every word about the Kingdom and the love of God. Some of us – blessedly, few of us – may be asked to lay down our lives in death, in a single and significant sacrifice of life for another. But we all have the opportunity to lay down our lives for others in the other ways that Jesus did. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends;” whether that’s done in one dramatic moment, or one day, one hour, one moment at a time.

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