We should not think of sacrifice as something foreign or extraneous to us. Sacrifice is written into our very being, into the nature of life itself. Jesus uses an obvious truth about nature to teach personal sacrifice, and specifically his own: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (Jn 12:24). In the natural world, life-giving death happens as a matter of course: the seed, the acorn, the grain of wheat, etc. Animal reproduction is less accidental, but still only a matter of instinct.
In human terms this life-giving death does not just happen. It must be chosen. We call that choice sacrifice, and no life is possible without it. Our biological life comes from a woman giving not just her body but her time, her life, her energy, her affection to conceive, bear, and nourish us. A couple has a life-giving marriage — both physically and emotionally — only to the degree that each is willing to sacrifice his or her own personal interests for the good of the marriage. A family flourishes because the parents yield their lives and interests for the sake of that fundamental community. Athletes, musicians, writers, scientists — anyone who strives for something great must sacrifice.
This is especially true in human relationships. They are fulfilling — life-giving — only to the extent that we are willing to sacrifice for the other person. We sacrifice to the degree we love. In a sense, we know this already. Hence our dislike for the “fair weather friend,” who is really no friend at all because he is unwilling to be with us in the difficult times — unwilling, that is, to sacrifice.
The Catholic Church has an old instruction that was given right before the rite of marriage. Still in use in some places, the instruction says in part, “Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy and perfect love can make it a joy.” That strikes me as a very realistic and therefore compassionate message for newlyweds. They are conscious of their love for one another, but not perhaps of what that love requires. Their love needs to be expressed in sacrifice.
And it works the other way as well: We love to the degree we sacrifice. The more we sacrifice (genuinely sacrifice; not just begrudgingly do things) for another, the more we will love that person. We cannot wait for our love to be perfect and pure before sacrificing for another. At some point we need to choose to make the sacrifice. Many a mother and father (and priest) has discovered that constancy in genuine sacrifice — the day in, day out choice to forego one’s own interests for the good of another — knits the heart closer to that other. He or she becomes dearer to us precisely because we have given so much of ourselves for that person. Thus sacrifice becomes a cause of love as well as an effect of it.
Another translation renders Jesus’ words as follows: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone.” That perhaps gets at the need for sacrifice more directly. Unless we are willing to sacrifice we will remain alone — without any relationships that bring fulfillment and life. Within us, we know this already. But, strange and fickle creatures that we are, we need to relearn and recommit ourselves to it daily.
Fr. Paul Scalia is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA, and son of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. His first book, That Nothing May Be Lost, hits book stores on March 25th.
Originally published at medium.com