The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that Jesus’ seven last words from the Cross reveal that His prayer for the restoration of unity between humanity and divinity and His love of total Self-gift have become one (see paragraph 2065). The Cross is where this pilgrimage of reunification is brought to its completion; communion is restored in His ineffable act of total Self-gift. St. John Paul II, perhaps more than anyone in recent times, has helped us to understand authentic love, heroic love, in terms of total self-gift.
The Cross culminates a life lived in Self-giving, where at the end of His life Jesus forgives those who have put Him to death; He reconciles a repentant sinner; He makes His Mother the universal Mother of all Christians, uniting us under a single Mother; He completes His transformation of the Old Testament Passover into the feast of reconciling, transforming love we call the New Testament Eucharist; and He reveals that there is always hope in surrendering oneself totally to God’s love, because love is stronger than death.
Jesus warned every would-be disciple, present and future, that the cross is the lot of everyone who would follow Him (see e.g. Mt 16:24; Mk 8:34; Lk 9:23). Jesus did not remove the Cross from the lives of Christians, He showed us its meaning and gives us the supernatural assistance to make it possible for His disciples to live it. What all too often is missed is that the Cross is a manifestation of merciful, total Self-giving love, and it is also the model. The specific manner in which a Christian’s total self-giving love is to be lived varies according to the specific relationship.
With God, our self-gift is the total, enduring surrender of ourselves to His merciful love, to the extreme of our death when it occurs, and however it comes about. For our human relationships, the criteria for living our total self-gift varies according to the type of relationship but what all relationships have in common is that one wills and acts for the integral perfection (body and soul) of the other in a manner appropriate to the relationship. If there is a conflict between acting for the perfection of the body and that of the soul, priority of course must be given to the soul, that is, one must ultimately give preference the other’s salvation. Unity in total self-giving love between human persons and Jesus Christ is ultimately the message and purpose of the Cross. Our working for the perfection of others must be done regardless of self-benefit. In other words, love of self-gift, that is, heroic love, is a disinterested love. Jesus shows us the radicality of this heroic, disinterested love when He reveals it applies even to our enemies, to those who would want us destroyed (see Mt 5:44; Lk 6:27); and He walks the walk (see Lk 23:34).
Everyone wants to be a hero. We can see this especially in young boys who want to be that superhero everyone loves because he saves them from all sorts of evils. Young girls want to princesses, to be heroines who are loved because their exterior beauty is matched by the interior beauty of their love and benevolence toward others. We are made for love, but what ultimately satisfies, what finally perfects us, us is not so much how well we are loved by others but how well we love them. This is in reality, the heroism we all seek.
It must be noted that Jesus shows us the prerequisite for such heroic love, for the taking up of our crosses, is self-mastery. He warns that if we are to take up our crosses successfully as His disciples, we must first deny ourselves; we must triumph over our fallen inclinations. We have first, to be able to say no to ourselves if we are to say yes to Him and to the integral good of our brothers. St. John Paul II puts it this way: we cannot give what we do not first possess. Self-mastery is the first step toward self-possession. Self-mastery is a life of perfection, made perfect by cooperating with the theological virtues by exercising the natural virtues (the cardinal virtues of course are, prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude).
Self-possession is the next step beyond self-mastery. It demands not simply saying no to ourselves, it requires saying yes to the good of others and to God. To do so, we must always be present to (that is, always be aware of) what we are looking at (custody of the eyes) and to what our thoughts are attending to (custody of the thoughts), so as to always look and think with all purity.
Finally when as we possess ourselves more and more fully, we can say yes to God and to the good of our brothers increasingly freely and perfectly. Self-mastery is a necessary first step, else the self-possession will never be full and it will never fruitful. Self-possession is the next else we will never reach our potential in selfless love, we will not become the heroes with pine to be. Put self-possession must be perfected in acts of love.
Giving ourselves to Jesus Christ in faith will not be redemptive if we do not also love our brothers (See James 2:14-20; 1 Jn 3:17; 4:20). James tells us works of love are essential to saving faith. In other words, if we do not grow in love of total self-gift through actions of love (i.e. works) for our brothers then our faith is that of demons. This perfection in love is what the tradition calls holiness. The Second Vatican Council reminds us that this heroic love, holiness, is the universal calling for each and every Christian (see Lumen gentium paragraphs 39-42). Holiness is not an option, it is the very nature of one who authentically loves Jesus Christ.
The Cross reveals to us that we are made for heroic love. Jesus offered it to us with His heroism of the Cross. He now asks us to respond in kind. If Christianity is going to be credible to the lost souls roaming the dying civilization of today, they must see Christians living out this heroic love—they must see the Cross manifested in each one of us. The New Evangelization will not bear fruit until we become the heroes we want to be.
Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.