December 21, 2018

Faith and Family / Sean Gallagher

Christ’s self-giving love began to be revealed at Christmas

Sean GallagherOn Dec. 8, 19 Catholic men and women who died for their faith between 1995-96 during a civil war in Algeria in northern Africa were declared blessed. This is the final step before declaring them saints in the Church.

It occurred in a Mass celebrated in Oran, Algeria—the first beatification ceremony in a predominantly Muslim country.

Among these martyrs were seven Trappist monks who lived in a monastery in the Algerian village of Tibhirine. On March 26, 1996, Islamist militants took the monks from their monastery and beheaded them.

The award-winning 2010 French film, Of Gods and Men, powerfully told the beautiful story of the monks.

Although they had long known that their lives were in danger, they declined protection offered by the Algerian army, saying that hiding behind weapons conflicted with their dedication to a life of peace.

French government officials pleaded with the French monks to leave Algeria for their home country. Again they refused, noting that they were called to a life of loving Christian witness in Tibhirine, serving the needs of their Muslim neighbors.

Sure enough, militants opposed to the presence of Christians in Algeria eventually came and took the monks away to their deaths. Now 22 years later, the Church has declared them to be martyrs for the Gospel and one with God and all the saints and angels in heaven.

According to the wisdom of the world, the martyrs of Tibhirine were fools to reject the protection and means of escape offered them.

Seen through the eyes of faith, they are men who loved the Prince of Peace, following in the footsteps of him who did not resist the violent men who cruelly tortured him and nailed him to a cross. It was love of their neighbors—their Muslim neighbors whom they served—that moved them to stay where they were, despite the violence and terror around them.

Jesus said at the Last Supper that “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). He fully embodied this love the following day when he freely died for the redemption of the world.

The love that was fully revealed on Good Friday, though, began its public expression at his birth at Christmas, which we will celebrate next week. The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity—he through whom the entire universe was created—chose to be born into poverty as a helpless baby.

Laying down one’s life as Jesus did in being born in Bethlehem, and as the martyrs of Tibhirine did in dying for the Gospel, may seem far removed from the life of families here and now. But it is not.

When parents put the needs of their family before their own desires and preferences, which is at the heart of their God-given vocation, they lay down their lives out of love for their spouses and children.

Parents are given many opportunities every day to lay down their lives in this way. And when, with the help of God’s grace, they take those opportunities, they teach their children to do the same.

Now I know full well that in my 16 years as a father, I’ve failed many times to lay down my life out of love for my family. And yet, my faith in Christ keeps strong my hope that I will be able to do this better tomorrow than I did today.

With the help, example and prayers of the martyrs of Tibhirine, may all families at this Christmas time grow in this divine, self-sacrificial love. †

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