A Catholic Monthly Magazine

No Greater Love

by Anne Kerrigan

by Anne Kerrigan

“A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.”
John 15:13

When I hear the above mentioned expression that a man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends, I usually think of a war situation in which one soldier gives his life for another. I also think of specific circumstances which demand heroic bravery such as attempted rescues in very difficult circumstances. The images of 9/11 and those brave firemen who ran into the danger and paid with their lives also come into my mind. A dear family friend, a fireman, laid down his life that day.

Over the years, I am sure each of us has heard stories of such heroism. Perhaps we even know someone who has paid the ultimate sacrifice.

But, just recently, I envisioned a new approach to that text in John’s Gospel.

My niece called me to share some wonderful news. There is a good possibility that the baby she has been caring for as a foster mother will be available for adoption. My niece is thrilled beyond words. She and her husband adore this little guy, and there is nothing that would make them happier than to have him as their own. They want to be able to share the goodness of their lives with this precious baby. But, as the old adage says, “For every great love, there is a great sorrow,” and nowhere is it more true than in this circumstance. In order for my niece and her husband to adopt that cherished little boy, there remains the heartbreak of the birth parents. As I see it, the birth parents are willingly laying down their lives for another. There doesn’t have to be an actual death in order to perform the ultimate sacrifice. These parents are choosing to let go of their beloved son in order to give him a life filled with more opportunity than they are able to give him at this time. There is no greater love. Victor Hugo once said, “What a grand thing to be loved! What a grander thing still, to love!” I can only imagine the pain of their loss, and I am in awe of their courage. I ache for them even as I rejoice with my niece.Baby

I hope that the birth parents themselves will be able to see their unselfishness as the ultimate loving act, the sacrifice of themselves because they love their son. Hopefully, it will ease the pain. This little boy will eventually learn that he has been loved beyond measure by two sets of parents. My prayer is that this knowledge will sustain him in adulthood, and give him inner resilience and strength. It is a great gift to be so loved.

As I further reflect on that scriptural passage, I realize there are so many other ways in which the ultimate sacrifice is made. The many parents of special needs children who devote their time and energy, their resources, and almost every moment of their lives to care for their loved one, are saintly. They also have made the ultimate sacrifice, not in the letter of the law but in the spirit of the law. The parents who work so hard at every moment to teach their children what they need to know in order to live decent moral lives are role models. The teachers, the priests, brothers, and nuns, the social workers, policemen and women, the doctors and nurses as well as supporting medical personnel all lay down their lives for others. The many veterans who have returned home wounded and broken may not have paid the ultimate sacrifice, but they have still laid down their lives for others, for us. The list is endless.

We cheat ourselves when we limit our vision of the ultimate sacrifice to just the ones who literally lose their lives. There are so many ways to lose one’s life in the service of another.

I have heard that gospel passage many times over the course of my life, and this was the first time I was able to understand another aspect of its meaning. Malcolm Muggeridge, the great British journalist, once said, “Every happening great and small, is a parable whereby God speaks to us; and the art of life is to get the message.” God’s grace enabled me to reflect on my niece’s experience of foster care and adoption, and see that the joy of my niece was forever coupled with the pain and the courage of the birth parents. Life is full of so many unexpected gifts!   

“To love is to take delight in the happiness of another.”

Gottfried Leibnitz, 1646-1716. German philosopher. “On the Notions of Right and Justice.” 1693.

“Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is more essential than your own.”

Richard Heinlein 1907-1988. American novelist and science fiction writer. “Stranger in a Strange Land,” 1961.

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