When it comes to sacrifice, mother knows best

Your mother knows more than you think.

Long ago, in the days when you were just a wee child, poking at your peas with a grimace on your face, Mom persuaded you to clean your plate by peppering your mind with pearls of wisdom. At the time, those pearls may have seemed like nothing more than motherly machinations. And chances are, they resulted in more eye-rolling than pea-eating. But, the truth is, your mother knew what she was talking about.

The clichés that rolled off her tongue with such seeming sadism were, in truth, some of the soundest theological summations on suffering and sacrifice known to man. Her truisms, aphorisms, maxims and dictums distilled about 2,000 years of Catholic teaching into one-liners so simple that a 5-year-old child could understand them, but so profound that a 55-year-old adult can still learn from them.

The fact is, almost everything you need to know about sacrifice, you learned from your mother. Let's review.

"Offer it Up"

Believe it or not, this isn't Catholic code for "Get over it." Although Mom might have occasionally used it that way, more often than not, when she pulled this one out of her repertoire of clichés, she was calling you to practice the daily habit of self-sacrifice, a prerequisite for sainthood.

Now, at the time, eating your peas or letting your sister borrow your favorite sweater might not have seemed like they had much to do with sainthood. But they very much did.

Sainthood consists in perfect conformity to the will of God. On the whole, it sounds much smarter to prefer God's will over one's own, so you wouldn't think choosing it would be that hard. But fallen human beings aren't always known for our smarts. In our sin, we show a decided and persistent preference for our own will. Overcoming that preference requires two things: grace and practice.

The grace part is up to God. We can and should ask for it, not to mention do what we can to receive it, but God doles out grace in his own ways and time.

The practice part, however, is entirely up to us. Every day, we have about 1,436 opportunities to deny ourselves. Occasionally, such denial may not be wise, but more often than not, it's wisdom personified. The more we give up something little that we do want -- eating a second piece of pie, sleeping an extra 30 minutes, watching "American Idol" -- and do something we don't want -- eating our peas, getting up to play with the kids, watching Veggie Tale's "Lord of the Beans" for the 8,547th time -- the better we get at denying our imperfect will and choosing God's perfect one.

"Think of All the Poor Children Starving in Africa"

Or, better yet, think of all the poor people suffering in your family, your neighborhood or your parish. They stand to benefit much more from your sacrifices now than those starving Africans benefited from your plate cleaning back then.

That's because when you offer up sacrifices -- great and small -- you actually join them to Christ's own suffering and sacrifice. United to him, through God's gracious permission, those little sacrifices "complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is the Church" (Col 1:24). In other words, every time you make a sacrifice of your own will and desires, in some small way you help obtain grace for your friends, family and even the hungry kids in Darfur.

"It's the Little Things That Count"

Thank St. Thérèse of Lisieux for that one. In days gone by, many a Catholic suffered from the misapprehension that only grand, glorious and gigantic sacrifices counted -- that is, fasting for 40 days and 40 nights, sitting atop a pillar for 20 years, or wearing the latest in hair shirts under one's coat and tie. St. Thérèse, with her Little Way, reminded the Church (not to mention generations of Catholic mothers) that the little sacrifices matter, too; that, in fact, they often matter more.

Hair shirts are all well and good, of course (although a really good spiritual director should probably be consulted before you don one), but all the hair shirts in the world aren't worth much if we can't make the little sacrifices charity demands -- holding our tongues, turning the other cheek or listening to another's problems rather than talking about our own.

Not only does charity demand little spiritual and corporal sacrifices, so does our station in life. Most of us aren't called to sit on the tops of pillars: We're called to care for our kids, help our spouses and be nice to our neighbors. The sacrifices God wants us to make are usually found in the daily duties associated with those calls. They are rarely great and even more rarely exotic: The sacrifice of watching a friend's children so she can get some cleaning done is unlikely to come up in canonization proceedings. Nonetheless, sacrifices such as those pave the road to sainthood.

They also present us with far fewer temptations to spiritual pride. Out-fasting all our friends could fool us into thinking we're holier than the rest of those self-indulgent gluttons. Eating soggy brussels sprouts or forgoing Starbucks runs during Lent doesn't quite have the same effect.

"God Loves a Cheerful Giver"

This one may top the list of Most Annoying Phrases Ever to Come Forth from Mom's Mouth. Nevertheless, it still holds true. God does love a cheerful giver.

A sacrifice is only as good as the attitude with which it is made. Sacrifices made grudgingly or resentfully don't add much to the treasury of saints. They also don't do much for the giver's soul. When we make a sacrifice -- whether it's big or small, material or spiritual -- we mustn't grumble or complain. Nor should we remind people of it again and again. The only thing worse than a grumpy giver is a giver who never lets others forget what's been given. When making sacrifices, the same rules apply as when fasting: "Do not look dismal like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may be seen not by men, but by your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Mt 6:16-18)

"If this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few"

OK, maybe your mother never used that gentle gem on you, but St. Teresa of Avila, one of the great spiritual mothers of all time, went so far as to use it on God. She did so after she stumbled upon one of sacrifice's hardest truths: The closer you get to God, the more he asks you to sacrifice.

Consider Abraham, who was asked to give up his son, or Jacob, who had to die as a stranger in a foreign land. The prophets regularly rode out of town on a rail. The apostles had to leave home and family to die martyrs' deaths. St. Lucy lost her eyes. St. Paul lost his head. St. Francis lost his clothes. Many of the great Doctors of the Church -- from St. Athanasius to St. Francis de Sales -- spent all or part of their episcopacy in exile. Other saints died of leprosy, the plague and cholera--diseases contracted from those they served.

Becoming a saint requires a willingness to make all those sacrifices and more. It requires a willingness to share in God's own sufferings.

Chances are God won't ask you to take your only begotten son and tie him up to a sacrificial pyre. You're also probably safe from requests that you pluck out your eyes, a lá St. Lucy. But, God may very well ask you to accept the death of a child or the loss of your sight.

He may ask you to accept ridicule, illness or poverty. And if not those sufferings, then others.

Which brings us to...

"Because I Said So"

This ranks right up there with "God loves a cheerful giver" on the annoyance chart, but the fact remains: Life is a valley of tears. Which means many sacrifices simply consist of accepting the sufferings given to us, not making sacrifices of our own choosing. We sacrifice because it is the only acceptable response to the trials we encounter in this world: God said so. "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mt 16:24).

Our acceptance of those crosses is what transforms them from mere suffering to sacrifice. To not question, to not demand understanding, to not rail at God and ask, "why me," is itself a sacrifice. The simple sacrifice of bowing our heads in submission to God and saying, "Thy will be done," carries more weight with him than that of a hundred fasts. It's also a hundred times more difficult.

"All You Have to Do Is Ask"

Our moms knew that for all their wisdom, their power to help us make any sacrifice -- big or small -- was limited. Ours is too. We can't give up anything without the help of grace. Trying to make sacrifices without calling for heavenly intervention is like driving a car on fumes: We won't get very far.

So don't try. When making the extraordinary sacrifices asked for during Lent and the ordinary sacrifices asked for every day of the year, ask for help.

Turn to the saints, who practiced heroic sacrifice during their time on earth. Learn from their example. Turn to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who have lived self-gift through all eternity and call us to live in imitation of them.

And turn to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who emptied herself to receive the Son of God into her womb, and who died to herself as she watched her beloved son crucified on Calvary. No human person has understood sacrifice better or sacrificed more than her, and whatever we haven't learned from our own mothers about sacrifice, we can learn from the mother of Christ.

Because mother really does know best.

Sacrifice at Mass makes us right with God

Human being build altars. It's what we do. Fish swim. Birds fly. We sacrifice.

We always have.

No matter how far back you look into man's past, you'll see priests, offerings and sacrificial rituals. Few of the great civilizations knew God, but all knew that something was wrong in the universe, something that could only be made right by the shedding of blood.

More so than any other ancient people, the Hebrews understood that. They knew that man had fallen in Adam and Eve, that he had inherited their sin, and that righteousness could only be restored through sacrifice. They knew that sacrifice was the right response of man to God.

Long before Moses instituted the Levitical sacrifices, Abel offered God the first of his flock, an offering that was "acceptable" to God (see Gn 4:4; Heb 11:4). Later, Noah stocked the Ark with "clean animals" -- animals acceptable for sacrifice -- then offered them in thanksgiving once the Ark came to rest on dry ground (see Gn 7:2; 8:20). Ten generations later, Noah's descendent Abraham wandered from Ur to the Promised Land, building altars along the way and sealing his covenant with the Lord with the sacrifice of a heifer, a she-goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon (see Gn 15:8-17).

The ancients made these sacrifices in thanks, in praise and in atonement for their sins. They also made them as a sign of what would happen to them if they violated their covenant with God. At the foot of Mount Sinai, when God made his covenant with the Israelites, the blood of the oxen offered in sacrifice was poured out on both the Israelite people and the altar of sacrifice. To the Israelites, that pouring out meant, in effect, "Let it be done to us as was done to these animals if we violate our covenant with the Lord" (Ex 24:6-8). Which is exactly what happened when they worshipped the golden calf and were, in turn, struck down by the Levites' swords (see Ex 32:8, 28).

Later, with the renewal of the covenant between God and Israel, came the Levitical sacrifices -- an elaborate system of proscribed offerings kept from the time of Moses until the fall of the Jerusalem Temple in A.D. 70. God intended the difficulty and number of those sacrifices to perpetually remind Israel of the seriousness of their sins, and he intended the sacrifices themselves to be an expression of faith, an outward sign of an inner disposition of love and trust (see Hos 6:6).

Healing sacrifice

But above all, God intended the sacrifices to teach the people that no matter how many offerings they made and no matter how elaborate their rituals were, nothing they did could ever heal the chasm between man and God. "But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins" (Heb 10:1-5).

Only the blood of the Messiah could do that.

Jesus Christ came to do more than teach and heal. He came to die. On Calvary, in perfect love, he gave his life for the atonement of sins. His blood did what no animal blood could do. It restored right relations between man and God, and it sealed the New Covenant between God and humanity, just as the blood of oxen once sealed the covenant between God and the Israelites. Killed at the very same hour as the lambs for the Jewish Passover were slaughtered, Christ became the Lamb of God, the Lamb of the New Passover.

Now, in heaven, Christ stands before the Father as the "Lamb who was slain," wounded but fallen, marked but resurrected (see Rv 5:6). Always standing, always bearing the wounds of his sacrifice, he perpetually and eternally presents the offering he made on Calvary.

And in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Catholics yesterday, today and tomorrow witness that same sacrifice re-presented in time. When bread and wine are offered to God and transformed into Body and Blood, there is no new sacrifice. Christ's sacrifice is not repeated. It can't be. It has never ended. It was made once for all. And when we join our hopes and fears, joys and heartaches to that sacrifice, when we make an offering of our life as the priest offers up bread and wine, and when we eat the body and drink the blood of the sacrificial victim, Jesus Christ, we too participate in that sacrifice made once for all.

Like the ancients who built altars and the Israelites who sacrificed goats, Catholics rely on sacrifice to make us and our world right. The only difference is that the Sacrifice upon which we rely actually does what we look for it to do. It does what humans for all time have looked for sacrifice to do.

The Daily Grind

Looking for ways to incorporate sacrifice into your day-to-day life during Lent? Look no further than these simple suggestions.

Give something up ... such as chocolate, salt on your food, second helpings of everything or cream or sugar in your coffee.

Stop doing something . . . such as complaining, hitting the snooze button on your alarm, talking about your day before asking about your spouse's, or reading every blog about "American Idol" that you can find.

Limit how much you do something . . . such as how much television you watch during the week, how much time you spend on Facebook, how often you go shopping for clothes or how many times a week you eat out.

Start doing something ... such as cooking a meal for expectant moms, offering to baby-sit for free for a neighbor once a week, calling your recently widowed Aunt Nancy every Sunday, or mowing the lawn of the single woman who lives down the street.

Accept something ... such as unfair criticism, your spouse's bad mood, your boss' unreasonable request or a friend's late arrival to your dinner party ... all without defending, challenging or reprimanding.

Give something away ... such as a bigger portion of your paycheck, some of the clothes that fill your closet to overflowing, some of the tulips popping up in your garden or some of the extra food in your pantry.

Give something to God ... such as an hour a week spent in Adoration, an hour a day spent at Mass, 15 minutes in the morning praying a Rosary or a quick moment in the middle of the afternoon to thank him for all he's done for you in the day thus far.

Recommended reading

This Lent, brush up on your understanding of ordinary and extraordinary sacrifice by picking up these books:

For more about everyday sacrifices, try "Love in the Little Things," by Mike Aquilina (Servant, $12.99).

For more about the sacrifices of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, try "Mother Teresa's Secret Fire," by Father Joseph Langford, M.C. (Our Sunday Visitor, $19.95).

For more about the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, try "The Lamb's Supper," by Scott Hahn (Doubleday, $21.95).

Everyday sacrifices

"There used to be a form of devotion -- perhaps less practiced today but quite widespread not long ago -- that included the idea of "offering up" the minor daily hardships that continually strike at us like irritating "jabs," thereby giving them a meaning. ...Those who did so were convinced that they could insert these little annoyances into Christ's great "com-passion" so that they somehow became part of the treasury of compassion so greatly needed by the human race. In this way, even the small inconveniences of daily life could acquire meaning and contribute to the economy of good and of human love. Maybe we should consider whether it might be judicious to revive this practice ourselves."

-- From Pope Benedict XVI's Spe Salvi (No. 40)

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.