Love is not sacrifice. Love is gift. Without clearly seeing the difference between gift and sacrifice, the Christian message can only be muddled in a modern world where one man’s sacrifice merely signifies his subjection to another man. In such a world the purpose of society is not to encourage the free exchange of gifts but the fair allocation of deserts. Such an appeal to fairness anchors the current redefinition of marriage. What heterosexuals have homosexuals must also have, regardless of intrinsic differences. To expect homosexuals to not marry, in other words, to sacrifice where heterosexuals are not asked to do so, is not considered fair.
It would seem that the prevailing concept of fairness could be easily discredited, particularly since current use of the word is of the following variety: it is not fair that an apple is not an orange. But quibbling over semantics will go nowhere in a world where definition is not perceived as meaning but as an assertion of power. Instead, we could point to the unfair death of an innocent man on a cross. In this reflection, that our faith centers on the horrible death of a innocent man who was also God, we can begin to approach the problem posed by a modern morality that equates denied sexual desire with an incomplete life. However, the message of the crucifixion is less direct than it first appears. To reference the crucifix as unfair and to highlight the sacrifice of Jesus as the lesson derived is inadequate. Why should some sacrifice and not others? Why is life unfair and shouldn’t we make it fair?
It is easy to focus on the sacrifice. It is easy to say we are all called to share the pain of Jesus. It is particularly easy for those of us who currently have little pain in our own lives to call on others to give up something that we might not so easily give up ourselves. However, in thinking the gift of Jesus is in his pain we point people to a path paved with sharp stones and covered with brambles. In doing so we suggest that our heavenly reward can only be reached by going through hell.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
But heaven is not a reward and Jesus did not call us to suffer. He called us to love and heaven is that place where love is complete. To suffer without love is hell. To suffer for love is heaven. Love is not a life discarded but a life given. Love gives meaning to suffering but it is not suffering. Nor is love denial because love is never a negative. Love is an assertion of who we are and what we are called to be. Love is always a positive. It does not detract from us. Rather, it fills the empty spaces in our lives. Love is gift, something given, not something denied.
The simple declaration of the Boystown motto, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother,” illustrates this concept. Of course the carried brother was heavy. By any ordinary standard he was an inconvenience. But to the burdened brother there was no burden because his love for his brother did not permit him to see it that way. He simply gave the gift of himself. There was neither consideration of reward nor the quest for heaven. The question, “What’s in it for me?” is not even considered, because from any practical perspective there was nothing in it for him. But somehow in his giving there is more than anything he could have conceived of gaining. Love begins with a sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself, of being subordinate not to internal feelings but to something external and mysterious, something that is worth giving all for. The burdened brother did not greet Fr. Flanagan with a rewards card, one requiring so many punches before it admits one to heaven. No, he participated in a gift larger than himself.
Multiply “he’s my brother” infinitely and you have Jesus on the cross carrying humanity on his back. It is not the pain of Jesus that redeems us but his love. Like a brother carried on its back, the love of Jesus carries the pain of all that is not love, otherwise known as sin. The very essence of sin is pain. It is the tragedy of sin that the pain often falls on others, even those the sinner does not know, even those who have not sinned. Sin is neither just nor fair. Yet to the lover, neither is love, because love does not begin with either “Who did this?” or “Why me?” It begins not only by picking up and carrying the broken brother, regardless of who did the breaking, but by forgiving the perpetrator as one also broken. The lover offers the gift of himself, without query as to whether it is fair.
Heaven becomes meaningful when we understand love as a gift. Heaven is not a reward, but a place where love is complete. There is no sin in heaven because there is only the love of those who have chosen to give themselves completely. Anything less would not be heaven. Each of us is given a lifetime to choose a love that is more than the sum of oneself. In that choice is heaven. The death and resurrection of Jesus makes clear that the gates are wide open and that heaven is ready for business. However, it is not rules we scrupulously follow that get us through the unguarded gate. Rather it is a life seeking love, one not driven by the rules, but a life described by those rules. It is a life where we accept the invitation to participate in the gift of God’s love.
Ultimately, love as gift leads us to a creator who not only gave us life but the ultimate gift, an invitation to share in the love of the creator himself. To see this is to be awed by a God who made men with a will even he could not force. To do so would take the very thing from man that enabled him to share in God’s love. Such understanding renders us children to a father who cannot force his love even on those he created. He can only offer it as a gift. His children must freely choose to participate in his love or it is not love at all. Because his love is infinite, his mercy is infinite; even divine mercy cannot change those who wish to remain unchanged. It can only renew—whether seven times or seven times seventy—the invitation to participate in the gift of God’s love.
In pointing to a creator who loves, the Catholic Church offers us the mystery of a love that is more than ourselves. It points us to the gift offered to all mankind. It does not offer rules that command but rules that lead us to form lives that will help us both see and choose the invitation of heaven. It does not ask us to grit our teeth and bear the pain of Jesus. Enduring pain for its own sake only leads to self-righteous pride, or even bitterness. Instead, the Church invites us to participate in the beauty of God’s gift. There will be pain, at times great pain, but it is not love’s task to endure pain. Rather it carries pain as the older brother carried the younger brother.
The Church is not a body of doctrine and rules to be choked down like medicine. It is not a sacrifice to be suffered but a gift to be received, reveled in and passed on. Its rules are onerous only if the gift is unseen. Unfortunately, I think many Catholics today, both liberal and conservative, including many of our clergy, don’t see the gift because they don’t see the love. Many conservatives get caught up in the letter of the law, while many liberals simply discount the law altogether, claiming some higher love that trumps the law. Rather than a gift to be presented, many Church teachings are seen as burdens that must first be explained away. But by separating the Church from what it teaches we separate the gift also, because we miss the love that is in the law. Love and law are separated at our peril. If our obedience is rote we come up short. St. Paul makes clear that one who has no love will “gain nothing” regardless of gift or sacrifice (I Cor 13:1-3). On the other hand, when we think we can love and ignore the law we author our own version of love. When we redefine love we redefine god, replacing a true god with the false god of our new “love.” Whether liberal or conservative, only in seeing the love in the law can we see and offer others the gift of the Church.
As I get assuredly older, and hopefully wiser, I see the Catholic Church as the partner we all need to see the gift of God’s love and to participate in it. Other Christian churches invite, but none pave the way and light the road as the Catholic Church does. Though only skin deep in much the Church offers, everywhere I have dug deeper I have found gold where previously I saw only rock. I see it in doctrine, the confessional, the Eucharist, and adoration. I see it in church art and architecture. I see it in the humility of trusting a church that is the Bride of Christ. I see everything, from sacraments to saints to statues, guiding me to the beauty of the gift that Jesus is. I see a heaven worth more than anything I could ever give. I see a gift freely offered.
Only in seeing the gift can we begin to understand Church teachings that specifically challenge us today. Over the last several years, I have found myself, as a writer, coming back to the issue of sexuality, because I believe modern sexual ethics are an existential threat to the very idea of love as gift. I do not wish to repeat or argue what I have stated elsewhere. However, I do wish to state that Church teachings on sexuality only made sense when I no longer saw them as sacrificial but, instead, as participation in God’s gift of creation. Only in seeing the gift in Church teachings on sexuality did I see that the Church does not deny our sexuality but embraces it fully. Chastity is not sacrifice but a gift each and every one of us gives, married or single, that brings us into full participation with the creation of life meant for love. Chastity is love. In seeing the beauty of chastity as love the false divisions of heterosexual and homosexual collapse. Instead, we unite as a single people called to a single purpose. Chastity is the gift that all can give.
Only as gift bearers can we answer those who challenge the Church, whether it be to respond to a false sexuality that has removed gift from true sexuality or to a resurgent world religion that explicitly denies the gift of Jesus. The gift we offer is not a call to sacrifice but an invitation to participate in the gift of God’s love. Seeing and accepting the invitation of God’s love transforms the negative of self-sacrifice into the positive gift of self. This makes sense only if we see that “love is gift” does not restate “love is sacrifice.” Rather, to recognize love as gift, not sacrifice, is a quantum leap in understanding that heaven is not a quest earned through suffering but something unearned that begins with a simple “yes” to the invitation to participate in God’s love. In that “yes” we will see a Church that lifts us up, not one that beats us down. The Church thus becomes a gift to all. In that “yes” our brother is no longer a burden on our shoulders.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “Christ Carrying the Cross” was painted by Tiziano Titian Vecellio.