by Rev. Gregory Smith, O. Carm.
THERE is no quality quite so fundamental to the Christian character as the spirit of sacrifice. From its birth in the Christian life each soul is pledged to a life of violence. The life of Christ comes to us as the spoil of conflict Mors et vita duello conflixere mirando as the fruit of the most awful violence ever wreaked upon human nature. This is the life into which we have been baptized. “Do you not know that all we who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death?” Conflict, warfare; not peace, but the sword; a kingdom that suffers the assault of violence; self-denial, drinking of a chalice of pain in composite it is the Cross that casts its bright shadow over the whole of the C h r i s t i a n l i f e . I n selfishness, to reject the selflessness of the Cross is to reject the happiness at its most abundant source for “by the wood of the Cross came joy into the whole world.” In any walk of life the sign of success as Christ sees success is the sign of the Cross. A share in the victory and in the Victor's spoils won on the Cross is granted to every Christian who will match, not counting the cost in niggardliness, the generosity of Him Who paid in precious price the last drops of His blood. This is the way of the Christian life for priests and religious, for married and single, for youth and adult; an inescapable way, than which there is no higher way above nor safer way below; it is the highway of the holy Cross, the path of sacrifice.
HOLY ORDERS AND MATRIMONY
The priest, essentially a man of sacrifice, comes into the holy place to cast himself prostrate in the sanctuary, while all the people pray to all the saints for him that he may become a worthy servant of the altar for the building up of the body of the Lord. The virgin, woman of selflessness, makes by the altar the vow that binds her to the service of one Love. Her love song of praise will be her daily sacrifice: “Offer to God praise as your sacrifice.” It is but right then that man and woman about to enter upon the life of Christian marriage make their vows by the altar. Marriage for the Christian is quite different from any other marriage. “This is a great mystery I mean in reference to Christ and to the Church.” The first glory of Christian marriage is that it is the sacramental image of the union of Christ with His spouse, the Church, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but holy and without blemish, “born from the side of our Saviour on the cross like a new Eve, mother of all the living.” (Mystici Corporis). Since it is on the Cross that Christian marriage finds its supreme significance, it is but fitting that man and woman should enter into the holiest place in the world to stand by the altar of sacrifice, there to vow that they will give themselves to one another and to Christ in their children. Here the Church, sacrificial spouse of the great High Priest, suggests that they be reminded that they are dedicating themselves to a life of painful giving which only the alchemy of love can transmute to pleasure. “Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy; and perfect love can make it a joy. We are willing to give in proportion as we love. And where love is perfect, the sacrifice is complete.” Having said so much, the ritual instruction places the measureless love of the Cross as the standard of Christian married love: “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
MARRY TO GIVE NOT TO GET
Not for more delightful getting do Christians many, but rather for more fruitful giving. Since Christ entered His creation to be found among us as One Who served, every Christian vocation entails a deliberate entry into the service of God, in the person of His Son, Whom we see not only in Himself, but also in “the members of His body, made from His flesh and from His bones.” The vocation of Christian marriage, precisely because it is Christian marriage, can never be a narrowing experience that restricts the view or contracts the interests of man and wife, each wrapped up in the other. Rather, Christian marriage, because it is primarily concerned with the community, widens the vision of two individuals to embrace the good of the whole of God's family, and calls them with sacramental power to exercise their noble function in the Mystical Body of Christ. “The Sacrament of matrimony, in which the parties become ministers of grace to each other, ensures the regular numerical increase of the Christian community, and, what is more important, the proper and religious education of the offspring, the lack of which would constitute a grave menace to the Mystical Body.” (Mystici Corporis). With husbands loving their wives as Christ loves the Church, with wives subject to their husbands as the Church is subject to Christ, both are charged with implementing in their common life their daily petition to the Father: “Thy kingdom come!” No less than, and in a measure, because grace can only build on nature, before the priesthood, those who enter the holy state of Christian marriage are thereby constituted servants of God and ministers to His Church. To give all to one another in loving devotion; to sacrifice everything, that in their homes as in the smallest cells of the Body of the Lord the life of the Head might flourish; to be faithful stewards of God's treasures born of their flesh in the full knowledge that they are God's children first and only He can make them precious; to give all and not to count the cost of giving this is the way to sanctity, the only success in Christian marriage.
It is the prosperity of Jerusalem “May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life” (Ps. 127:6) that the Church begs for newlyweds in the marriage blessing. If the wife is to be a fruitful vine and the children as olive plants about the table, then under the father of the family the home must be built as the place of sacrifice. On the day of marriage it s h o u l d b e t h e sacrifice of the Mass about which all arrangements are made, for this should be the greatest moment, the time of glad festivity that will be longest remembered. With invitations designed to show forth the deep spiritual meaning of Christian marriage, friends and relatives can and should be invited to share in the body of the Lord in the first nuptial feast, the altar banquet. The whole Church, especially those who come to the wedding drawn by ties of blood and friendship, is concerned that this marriage be begun well. What a strong impression of solemnity is made when bride and groom come to the table bearing two lighted candles brought from among the number they supplied for their wedding Mass, candles that shed the glow of their sacrifice over the festivities. So many things can be done, if only the bride and her parents realise that this wedding is meant to establish on the rock foundation of the Christian altar a family sealed with the sign of sacrifice.
Married life is a veritable school of sacrifice; the Christian home a training ground of discipline. Wherever people live together in any sort of common life, there are bound to be differences of opinion and clashes of personality. This is as true in every home as it was true among the apostles. So must father and mother bear with each other and both of them with the children, the faults of each contributing to the sanctification of all. Bearing with patience, correcting where parental correction is demanded firmly and with kindness, and over and over again with patience this is the daily school of sacrifice that is family life. Much more, however, is entailed in family sacrifice than the negative bearing the faults of others. How much sacrifice is entailed for those who would reap the marital blessing that prays: “May you be ready with help and consolation for all those who come to you in need; and may the blessings promised to the compassionate descend in abundance on your house.” This envisions a family enlivened by a spirit of Christian hospitality, a home where the doors are always open and the guest is received as Christ, where the family purse strings are loose and the cupboard is open to care for the poor. The works of mercy that make their demands on family time and family funds are the rewarding school of family sacrifice. That family will be blessed in its work and enjoy its fruits, however meagre, when generous share is given to those in need; when time is found for visiting the sick, the invalid shut-in; where there is compassion for the orphaned, the wanderer, the displaced and homeless; where the mite-box that holds the sacrificial offering of the child is added to the fruit of parents' fast to put bread on the table of the poor. Nor is it enough to allow others to serve the lesser members of Christ in the name of your family. To profit to the fullest extent each family should have its own pet work of mercy that calls the family to sacrifice. Family sacrifice, hardship borne or deliberately undertaken as a family, can forge bonds of unity and love such as no other single force. To family recreation and family work, to family prayers, family sacrifice adds the crown of family blessings.
DISCIPLINE, FRUIT OF SACRIFICE
The spirit of sacrifice makes of the Christian home a training ground of discipline. Parents completely aware of their own inadequacy to make their love creative and knowing that they are never so powerful and at once so weak as they are in the loving consummation of their marriage must be disciplined in their expression of pure conjugal love by the discipline of utter dependence on God's good pleasure. The same desire of love that brings them to oneness in the flesh brings them to one will that God be glorified in the children that He may give as the happy fruit of their union. Christian parents set a tone of discipline in their homes that forms a disciplined family, wherein the children are reared in the Christian pattern of sacrifice from their very infancy. No infant in a Christian family is permitted to be a tyrant, something they are perfectly capable of becoming. They are shown every sign of parental affection, given every attention that is their due, which is a lot, but they are not allowed to become masters of the household. As they grow, the lessons of discipline are suited to their development. In the high chair the stern discipline of table manners is begun as in little ways, and not always with success; a child is taught a Christian etiquette that inculcates a reverence for the bread that is God's gift, a sobriety in its use, and eventually a sensitivity for the feelings of others at table. In the natural disciplines of posture, neatness, cleanliness, respect for their bodies and those of others are laid the foundations upon which grace can build a structure of strong virtue. Children are always to be helped when it is necessary, but at a very early age they can be taught the discipline of helping themselves and serving the family. A large family is a burden in many ways, but where it is a burden resting on many shoulders it is light upon each; and where many hands in the family are all busy helping one another, we have the typical large happy family a perfect school of self-denial and Christian charity where the children quickly learn to give of themselves in the service of others.
This disciplined spirit in parents and children is the finest fruit of the spirit of sacrifice in the family. The undisciplined, wilful member of the family no matter what his age is a source of discord, a malcontent who strikes with the sword of division at the unity of the family. Those parents, therefore, store up for themselves only heartbreak, when they fail to form themselves and their children in the stern school of self-discipline and self-denial, for without this latter none will walk worthy of Christ. It is not discipline that contracts, warps and impoverishes the personality. It is the wanton rebel with little or no respect for law, who, when he expresses himself, says nothing. It is the man schooled in selfdenial, the school of the saints, who is free with the freedom of the sons of God; who can, paradoxically, enjoy the fullest measure of self-expression and achieve the complete development of the Christian personality.
RETURN TO ALTAR
To the altar by which it was established the Christian family ever returns to re-enkindle its ideals and to refresh its spirit. Through active participation in the sacred mysteries of our religion, the Christian family drinks deeply of the primary and indispensable source of the true Christian spirit. From Sunday family Mass to Sunday family Mass each member amasses his victim offering to be made in the sacrifice little acts of self-denial and coins saved for Sunday envelope offerings. Saturday is a day of preparation for Sunday Mass, when Dad can read over the Mass text with the family all contributing to the discussion in which each seeks the lesson of life taught for their family in this Sunday's sacrifice. As far as it is possible to them they make the parish Mass their Mass, assisting as a family and by choice in the Parish High Mass, lifting their minds and hearts and voices together in praise and sacrifice and eating together at the banquet table of the Lord of the Bread that is sacrament of love, bond of unity and pledge of peace. This is their food for the way of sacrifice walked through the week, when all cannot assist at Holy Mass daily; though where it is possible, one family representative is present at the altar each day. In the Eucharist the bond of unity in the Christian family is strengthened and its sacrificial spirit nourished.
CRUCIFIX, HUB OF HOME
In the Church it is the altar with its Victim that is the hub about which Christian family life revolves, while in the Catholic home it is the Cross of Christ which is the ever present reminder of the spirit of this house. With the growth of the Christ-like family spirit in this our day, many young husbands sanctify a new home or a new apartment by leading their families across the threshold and through the rooms with the Cross of Christ in their hands. Before anything else the family Cross is placed in its honoured corner. From the wood of the Cross Christ reigns over the household, presides over the family prayer, strengthens in time of family trial, rejoices in time of family feast, is a pillar of strength in time of family sorrow, at all times teaches the lesson of family sacrifice. Wise those parents who build their homes upon the solid foundation of the altar, for though rains fall and floods come and winds blow, their homes will not fall because they are founded on rock, and the rock is Christ. Happy those children who live in homes built about the Cross, where the Cross upholds the rooftree with its arms stretching to bind the walls together, where from this throne Christ teaches His daily lesson to parents and children alike: Sanctity is success and the Cross is the way to both.